When we’re heading off on our summer holidays, many of us choose driving at night because the roads are quieter after dark. It can make for a quicker, cheaper and less stressful journey. But it can also be more dangerous.
According to government figures, around four out of 10 road accidents occur after dark. Considering there are generally fewer cars on the road at night, that’s a significant proportion.
Around 90 per cent of the information we use when driving is processed through our vision. When it’s dark, our ability to see things obviously decreases. That means it takes longer to spot pedestrians and other road users, road signs and traffic signals. So here are some tips for staying safe on the road when you’re driving at night.
Clean up your act
If you’re planning on driving at night, make sure your windscreen is clean. You should have plenty of screen wash in your reservoir to shift the bugs that will come to a sticky end against your screen. And make sure you clean the inside of the windscreen too. These get covered in impurities carried in the air which can cause a deterioration in vision at night. If you wear glasses, clean them before you set off so your vision isn’t obscured by looking through greasy fingerprints.
Know your limits
Humans weren’t really designed to operate at night which is why we had to invent lights to help us see. When it’s dark we’re supposed to be asleep. That means while you’re driving in the dark, your body may well be wanting to go to sleep. This will make you feel drowsy, your eyelids will start feeling heavy and your reaction speeds can slow in a similar way to if you’ve had too much alcohol. Recognise when you’re feeling sleepy and do something about it.
Treat fatigue when driving at night
Government figures show that around one in five serious accidents on motorways and monotonous roads in the UK are caused by falling asleep at the wheel so it’s not something to be treated lightly. If rather than stopping at a hotel and getting some proper sleep you need to keep driving, there is a recommended way to wake yourself up. And no, it doesn’t involve opening the window or turning up the music!
If you have another driver in the car, now’s the time to swap and for you to get some sleep. Even an hour or two will mean you’re more alert when you’ve woken up properly. If you have to keep driving, pull over at a services or in a safe layby and have some caffeine, whether it’s a strong coffee or a canned energy drink. Then put the seat back and have a snooze. Closing your eyes and resting for between 15 minutes and half an hour will give your body a boost and allow the caffeine to kick in, waking you up and helping you feel more alert.
Watch your speed
As your visibility is limited when it’s dark, you need more time to react to hazards. That means slowing down so that you can respond to the unexpected without endangering yourself or anyone around you. You should also be able to stop within the distance you can see to be clear. At motorway speeds, the recommended distance to the car in front is usually two seconds. At night, make sure you keep a gap of at least three seconds.
Adjust your lights
You may not have noticed but your car’s lights are adjusted to point slightly to the left. This is to ensure that on British roads our lights don’t dazzle oncoming drivers. It also ensures we can see the kerb on the left of the car. But it means that when we’re driving abroad, our lights are pointing at other drivers. You can adjust where your headlamps point using what are known as beam benders, reflective strips you buy at motor retail stores. But on some cars you can simply do it via the car’s computer, so before you set off read the vehicle’s instruction manual. Having your lights properly adjusted will make driving easier for you and certainly help on-coming drivers.
Nick Reid is a fellow of the Institute of the Motor Industry and head of transformation at Green Flag