Answer Man

Answer Man: Shedding light on daytime running lamps

Q. About 25 years ago the U.S. government required all new vehicles to have daytime running lamps/lights (DRLs). But somewhere along the line something must have changed because for the last few years I’ve seen many cars that don’t have them. Was there a change in requirements or did the government never enforce one of its own laws? It just seems like with the new cars becoming so high-tech that owners don’t have to think anymore, people are forgetting to turn their lights on in the rain and at night.

— Larry, of New Baden

A. What? Could it be? The nanny state falling down on its job to protect us from every possible peril? Why, I’m sure our conservative readers would have a field day to learn of such an example — if only it were true.

Yes, fasten your seat belts, because you’ll likely find this answer most enlightening: You may be so accustomed to the government mandating programs to protect our well-being that you’ll be shocked to learn that it never has required daytime running lights.

That’s right — since 1990, U.S. automakers have begged the powers-that-be for such a law, but the government has turned them down every time. As recently as 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded there is no evidence that DRLs provide enough of a safety benefit to require federal regulation. And there’s no sign it will change its mind in the future.

As you may know, that’s a major difference of opinion from much of the rest of the world. Way back in 1972, Finland was the first to mandate such lights, which were at that time confined to rural roads in winter. Five years later Sweden required DRLs at all times followed by Norway in 1986, Iceland in 1988 and Denmark in 1990.

Now, admittedly, Scandinavia is a special case. Being so far north, there’s much less ambient light during the day for much of the year than you’d find, say, driving across Kansas on a hot, summer day. So DRLs might be particularly helpful there in making oncoming cars more visible to other drivers.

Still, in Europe, numerous studies have shown their value at preventing the most severe type of accidents, including head-on and intersection crashes and collisions with pedestrians and cyclists. According to some research, DRLs could prevent 25 percent of all fatal daytime multivehicle accidents, 28 percent of fatal pedestrian accidents and 20 percent of all multivehicle accidents that cause injury.

Perhaps numbers like these convinced Canada to require DRLs on all new vehicles made or imported after Jan. 1, 1990. That’s when General Motors jumped on the bandwagon. To reduce the need to make different cars for Canada than it did for the U.S., GM asked NHTSA in 1990 to allow (not require) it to sell cars with DRLs in the U.S. But NHTSA refused, fearing the glare might distract drivers and make turn signals harder to distinguish.

Finally, in 1995, NHTSA dropped its objections and car companies were allowed to offer models with the new feature. GM immediately put them on all of its products starting with the old Chevy Corsica. Saab, VW, Volvo, Suzuki and Subaru also rolled them out. In 2006, Honda began equipping its U.S. models with them, too.

Yet despite their potential benefit, they were not universally loved. Soon after they started showing up on U.S. roads, the Department of Transportation reportedly fielded thousands of complaints about glare, turn-signal confusion and reduced visibility of motorcyclists. Soon, NHTSA proposed reducing the intensity of DRLs, but the proposal eventually was dropped in 2004 as drivers apparently became accustomed to them.

Ever since, many other countries have made them mandatory even as they remained an option here. Such countries as Germany, Spain and France once either required or encouraged their use before the entire European Union made them mandatory after Feb. 7, 2011.

Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia require the use of full- or low-beam headlights at all times. Even Russia came on board on Sept. 23, 2010, requiring the use of low-beam headlights or DRLs anytime, anywhere.

And most studies continue to point to their effectiveness. In 1985, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found commercial fleet passenger vehicles were involved in 7 percent fewer multivehicle crashes. In 1999 in Australia, fleet vehicles equipped with DRLs took more than five times longer than non-DRL vehicles to be involved in a daytime crash with another vehicle.

Even U.S. researchers, using data collected nationwide from 1995 to 2001, found a 5 percent decline in daytime head-on smashups. But in 2008, another federal study concluded that DRLs reduced crashes between pickups, SUVs and vans, but not between passenger cars. As a result, it denied yet another GM petition to make them mandatory, saying:

“ ... the agency remains neutral with respect to a policy regarding the inclusion of DRLs in vehicles ... we do not find data that provides a definitive safety benefit that justifies Federal regulation ... manufacturers should continue to make individual decisions regarding DRLs in their vehicles.”

So, while Illinois requires you to turn on your lights in the rain, it’s still lights out when it comes to a mandatory DRL law in the U.S.

Today’s trivia

Can you name the actresses who played the mothers of the six primary characters on “Friends”?