How hard is it to turn on your headlights?

Forget COVID-19, we're battling an epidemic of drivers who don't know how their headlights work. It's time to make a change.

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Scott Collie
News Editor

I recently moved into a new apartment. It’s in a small building filled with lovely people, save for one.

They’re always up for a chat, and they know when to turn the music down, but they don’t know how their headlights work… and it drives me mental.

I’ve seen them getting around in daylight with high-beams blaring. I’ve seen them arriving home in the dead of night using nothing but daytime running lights. It’s utterly infuriating.

They’re far from alone. You don’t need to spend long on the road to spot drivers getting around with their headlights off, or only partly switched on, at night in 2021.

Thing is, it’s not their fault. Sure, some of them are just ignorant, but for all the advances made in modern cars, headlight controls haven’t kept up.

Take the humble column stalk, and the controls at the end of it.

Most cars now have four modes – lights off, parking lights on, automatic, and lights on – and all of them are millimetres apart, labelled with tiny fonts.

None of them make much of a difference to what the driver sees in the cabin, either. Modern cars have permanently backlit dials and buttons, or screens, so switching the headlights on doesn’t light the interior up like a Christmas tree.

Driving along a well-lit road at night there’s no sign your headlights aren’t on from the driver’s seat, because you can see the road and your dials.

The only way to know if your lights are on is by reading what’s on the column stalk, which is usually obscured by the steering wheel or paddle shifters. When was the last time you did that?

Then there’s the state of high-beam in 2021. No-one needed to fiddle with the old pull back to flash, push forward for high-beam system, but some manufacturers are now using stalks that click back to a central position.

It’s not a problem on a deserted country road, where it’s obvious whether you’re using high-beam or low-beam, but it’s easy to accidentally turn the high-beams on and not realise on a well-lit city street.

There’s a blue light on the dashboard, but it’s not necessarily in the driver’s line of sight – and your eyes should be on the road, anyway. In some cars, that little blue light also blends in neatly with other lights or screens on the dashboard.

There are solutions to all these problems. The first is to just make the headlights in new cars automatic, and bury the off switch in a menu somewhere hard to find.

I’ve never driven a car with auto headlights that wasn’t ready to switch them on at the first hint of shadow, let alone full darkness, so the risk of people driving around with their lights off is close to zero.

Worried about headlight sensors failing? If a car isn’t sure whether the lights need to be on or not, it should just default to on. Simple.

The second thing that needs to happen? Why not warn drivers when their lights aren’t on, but need to be.

Modern cars beep at you about everything, and have enough sensors to make the crew of the Apollo 11 jealous. Even cars without automatic headlights have some form of light sensor on board, usually to adjust the screen brightness.

Why not just warn the driver when it’s dark out and their lights aren’t on?

Carmakers aren’t shy about hitting drivers with pop-up messages about things far less useful – Skoda had the audacity to warn me about opening the windows with the air-conditioning on, as I was reaching out the window to take a parking ticket.

The same theory also works in reverse. High beams active driving on a well-lit city street? Maybe it’s time for the car to nudge you about turning them off.

None of the safety advances made in motoring recently remove the need to see what’s going on.

It’s not just annoying when drivers don’t know how to use their headlights, it’s downright dangerous. The solutions are all there, it’s up to carmakers to start making them reality.


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