If you’ve ever driven around a corner on a dark night and been momentarily blinded by an oncoming car with its lights on full beam, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re one of around 29 million others! A recent survey has found that some 48% of drivers – around 29 million of us – report having lost vision for some two seconds or so in this situation. So how big a problem is this? And what other causes of concentration loss can impact our driving?
The problem is such a common one, particularly as we head into the longer nights of winter. We’ve all been there – you come around a corner and the car heading towards you hasn’t dipped its lights. This means you have a second or two where you can’t see, either because you’ve been dazzled or because you instinctively raise your hand to protect your eyes.
Despite the fact that many cars having an automatic dip-beam function, night-time dazzling remains an issue. To see just how big a problem this is, Direct Line did a series of roadside experiments. Their results found that drivers are temporarily blinded for a full two seconds in this situation. While this doesn’t sound very long, bear in mind that a car can cover 60 metres during that time if travelling at 70mph. That’s quite a distance to drive without vision.
Furthermore, it takes another three seconds for the aftereffects of that flash of light to clear from a driver’s vision entirely. Until then, the driver experiences those little black dots and flashes that result from looking at a bright light and then looking away. This means a dazzled driver doing 70mph would have travelled the length around half a football pitch without being able to see properly.
The study went on to reveal that many people have had problems as a result of this situation. A fifth of respondents said they have had to brake suddenly to deal with the situation, while around 5% – some 1.5 million drivers – have had to take evasive action to avoid a crash because they couldn’t see properly.
Government statistics paint a similar picture. In the last five years, there have been 1,622 road accidents caused by drivers dazzled by headlights. Of those, 22% were serious or fatal – a total of 350 incidents. 44% of these believed that repeat offenders who were caught should be penalised with a fine and penalty points.
Quality of lights
The quality of lights in cars has improved in recent years. However, this itself can cause problems. Some 37% of those surveyed said that they were blinded by a vehicle even when the lights were dipped. This is due to the use of Xenon bulbs, which create a brighter light than traditional halogen ones. It improves the visibility for the driver, but creates a strong glow for oncoming motorists.
Thankfully, changing technology should mean the problem is soon one of the past. Most modern cars now have an auto-dip function that identifies when another vehicle is close and lowers the lights accordingly. However, the system does have flaws, including not being able to recognise cyclists or pedestrians.
Other causes of distraction
Dazzling headlights aren’t the only cause of distractions for drivers on the road. One of the major issues is fatigue, which is responsible for one in six crashes around the UK. Drivers may think they have just briefly nodded, but many actually fall asleep at the wheel for a few moments. These micro-sleeps can last for around six seconds. That’s enough time for a vehicle to veer across three lanes of traffic or into a central reservation.
The dangers of using a mobile phone while driving have been well publicised, but other causes of distractions are less obvious. Smoking at the wheel is one example – finding the cigarette, lighting it, then opening the window all distract the driver from the road. Smoking leads to 1% of road traffic accidents.
At other times, our concentration just wanders. Daydreaming is another way in which a driver’s attention can be taken away from the road. It is worst on long, straight roads such as motorways, where the body and brain switch into autopilot and you don’t completely concentrate on what you are doing. This is particularly dangerous when travelling at speed.
While some distractions like dazzling headlights can’t be avoided, others can be. It is important to keep your attention focused on the road at all times. Take regular breaks when driving – around 15 minutes for every two hours that you’re behind the wheel. And if you feel drowsy, stop as soon as it is safe to do so.