Do we really need Daylight Running Lights (DRLs)?

So Daylight Running Lights are with us now on all new cars in the UK.  But do we really need them and how do we drive with them? Do they work - or are they actually too bright and in fact contribute to accidents rather than reduce them? 

Early Daylight Running Lights
Daylight Running Lights, or DRLs are not new.  They were first introduced in the UK on the Volvo 240 in the mid-70's and were designed to be on whenever the engine was running.  They looked like bright sidelights and were in fact 21W bulbs fitted alongside the existing 5W sidelight bulbs. 

Ever since then attempts have been made by various governments around the world to introduce some means of making road vehicles more visible on the roads - and by so doing, reduce the number of accidents on our increasingly crowded roads.  Many of the earlier schemes (such as the UK's 'dim-dip' feature in the '80s) failed because of the difficulty in agreeing common standards for manufacturers to follow. Later on, there was much discussion throughout Europe about whether cars and motorcycles should be driven with dipped headlights on at all times and many countries introduced their own legislation regarding the use of headlights while the European Commission considered how it could introduce common standards across Europe and then set the associated technical standards for new cars in line with these standards.

The conclusion of all this work is the introduction of daytime running lights laws that means that in the UK for example all new cars must be fitted with Daylight Running Lights or DRLs from 7th February 2011. Vans and trucks will follow with their own DRLs from 2012.  But is this law - and the specification of DRLs actually a good thing?

Accident Research
We're all for reducing the number of collisions and fatalities that take place on our roads, but how do we measure these accidents so that meaningful statistics can be produced?  In the UK, the Police Forces have been recording all 'injury road accidents' where injury or death has taken place since 1926 and this data (referred to as STATS19) has been published by the Department for Transport since 1951.  The form to be filled in is available on the UK Dept of Transport's National Archive web site and the 2011 report can be seen on the UK Government's Department of Transport web site.  It is analysed nationally and the results are used extensively by Government, Local Councils, Research establishments and manufacturers in studies as diverse as street lighting, traffic calming, road construction, signs, driver training and also aspects of vehicle technology - including seat belts, air bags, better tyres, better brake systems and improved visibility.  An idea of the level of detail recorded can be had from looking at the forms used to record accidents, and a useful summary graph, produced by Peter Eastern, can be found on the Wikipedia web site:

This is where we can start to consider the true effect of the introduction of DRLs

The reason put forward for the introduction of DRLs is "to increase the visual contrast between vehicles and their background so that the presence of a vehicle is made more obvious to other road users".  Studies that have been carried out by the bodies promoting DRLs claim that DRLs will make a difference to certain types of accident.  The UK Government, for example, projects a 6% reduction in accidents without compromising other non-DRL road users (pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds etc) whereas the European Commission projects between 3-5%.  However, Lightmare, (a British web site set up by Roy Milnes and Ken Perham) specifically targets the increasing use of bright lights on British roads and the wider detrimental effect this is having on road safety.  They comment that statistics about DRLs from eight European countries over a 15-year period show that road fatality rates dropped faster in non-DRL countries such as Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands than fatalities in pro-DRL countries such as Finland, Norway and Sweden.  Indeed, Austria has gone as far as to ban their introduction despite the EC legislation on the basis of these statistics.  Other campaigners say that speeding and alcohol are the main underlying factors behind road deaths, not difficulty in seeing cars that don't have lights on. They say that training motorists to look out for vulnerable road users would be one of the most effective safety measures that can be introduced. 

So despite all the research, we still have no firm conclusion.  So how can we judge if DRLs are actually effective?

Well, there is a section in the STATS19 report form that is labelled 'Contributory Factors'.  The Officer attending the accident has to complete the form and he can record up to six relevant factors that contributed to the accident.  While DRLs are not mentioned specifically in the form, one factor that is listed is 'Dazzling headlights', (Code 705).  We would need to wait for a year or two while statistics are gathered, but it would be interesting to see how this factor featured in accidents before and after the introduction of DRLs and the new legislation.  This would therefore provide the confirmation or otherwise that the new legislation is effective.

Are DRLs too bright?
The Lightmare team are particularly worried that the European standards that have been introduced are too powerful for our normal use and that the lights on current cars are now far too bright to be safe.  The  regulations (ECE Regulation 87, Revision 2: Daytime running lamps)  are clear in terms of the specification of the light (brightness and angles, construction and approval) and the use (to make the vehicle more easily visible when driving during daytime).  The standard stipulates that the direction of these lights is to be fixed to point directly in front of the vehicle (unlike dipped headlights that are aimed so as not to dazzle the oncoming driver).  Now consider that the light levels specified for DRLs are between 400cd and a maximum of 1200cd.  To give a comparative reference level for this amount of light, dipped headlights are typically around 800cd - and these are by law aimed down and away from oncoming traffic.  Therefore, with current legislation, DRLs can actually be brighter than dipped headlights but without the beam pattern that prevents dipped headlights from dazzling oncoming road users.  Nice.  No wonder Lightmare are so concerned!

Finally, far from being considered primarily as a 'safety feature', manufacturers and the motoring press are treating DRLs as a 'stylish addition' to a car, concentrating on the look of DRLs as adding character to a car rather than contributing to its safety.  This needs to stop, as it means that drivers reading this information are being encouraged to buy/specify the lights as a fashion accessory rather than to treat or think of them as a safety feature.  We are seeing more and more of this now, with drivers using fog lamps in good weather or fitting non-standard (and often illegal) HID headlamps to make themselves look 'cool'.  They're not.  They are only increasing their chance of contributing to an accident as they are increasing the chances of dazzling oncoming drivers while travelling.  Sites like Lightmare can help by providing the education that these drivers need to stop this happening and, when enough drivers are aware of the perils, we can bring pressure to Government and to the European Commission to update the standards and reduce the dazzling effect of DRLs and other overbright automotive lights.

So what can you do?  Well, if you agree that the current high-brightness automotive lights are too bright for our roads, then you should visit Lightmare's web site and sign their petition.  Given enough people signing the petition, the Lightmare team will be able to lobby the UK Government and the European Commission to change the legislation and reduce the unnecessary additional lighting that is being used on our roads.

The fight has started...