Safety Winners – And Losers

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Government is always a zero-sum game. There are winners — and losers.

It is said — that is, we are told — air bags “save lives.” Well, yes. They do save some lives. Other lives have been lost as a result of air bags, though. You’ve probably seen the news stories recently. But this is not the first time air bags have hurt people. Nor will it likely be the last time.

Government decides who lives — and dies.

Here’s another: Daytime Running Lights (DRLs).

These always-on headlights are now ubiquitous. They have been standard equipment on GM cars for decades (since the early ’90s) and it’s pretty much impossible to buy a new car that doesn’t automatically turn on its headlights even on the brightest summer day — when you need headlights about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. It’s true that in some new cars, you can turn the DRLs off. But they’re default on unless you turn them off.

And most people just leave them on.

Ok, but how does that make the roads less safe? Bear with me a moment.

GM began fitting all its cars with DRLs back in the ’90s as a cost-saving measure. “Safety” might have been the window dressing, but the real reason was dollars and cents — and government force.

GM sells (and builds) a bunch of cars in Canada, where DRLs have been mandatory since 1989 (see here). Someone in the guts of GM’s accounting department realized that it would save the corporation a bunch of money for GM to build all its cars with DRLs rather than build cars bound for the U.S. without them and those slated for sale in Canada with them. And because GM — especially late 1980s/early ’90s GM — was the 800 pound gorilla of the car industry, what GM did others tended to do.

And, they did.

Suzuki, Subaru and Toyota have been DRL’ing it up since about 1995. DRLs have been mandatory in most of Europe since 2011 — which takes care of Audi, VW, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Fiat.

In Sweden — birthplace of the odious Safety Cult — they’ve been required since 1977.

Allegedly, this increases safety by making cars more visible.

But how about motorcycles?

Now that cars run around with their headlights on all the time, it’s a lot harder to see them. Because of visual clutter, washout. And glare.

That’s “unsafe,” wouldn’t you say?

Especially given that bikers are a lot more vulnerable than drivers. An accident involving two cars at 25 MPH is a fender bender. An accident at 25 MPH involving a car and a bike can be a life-ender.

For the biker.

But then, his life is valued less by government, which picks the winners and losers.

If you’re older than 40, you will remember that once upon a time and not so very long ago, it was easy to spot a bike — even at a distance — because the bike had its headlight on. And because cars did not (unless they were part of a funeral procession). In traffic, especially, a bike with its headlight on compensated for the narrower profile and reduced visibility of the cycle.

It made riding safer.

Then along came Uncle. Or rather, whatever cartoonish icon they have in Canada to represent the power of the state. Ditto Europe and Japan.

DRLs haven’t yet been mandated here, but it’s a moot issue given that DRLs are de facto standard equipment (whether you want them or not) because of the government pressure to build DRL-equipped cars for most markets. That pressure ends up with all cars DRL-equipped. I’m pretty sure every new car currently sold in the United State (singular on purpose, in the interests of editorial accuracy) has DRLs. Not because consumers clamored for them. But because governments forced consumers to buy them. Supposedly, to make the roads “safer” … for cars. But bikes got lost in the shuffle.

Who speaks for them?

Like the people killed (and many more badly injured) by air bags, their lives were deemed (to paraphrase another Uncle — Joe Stalin) a “statistic.”

Also — less lethally — the costs involved. DRLs are not free. Which you’ll discover when the array of LED DRLs your new car has burn out. They increase energy usage, too. Your DRL-equipped car burns a bit more gas than it would otherwise, to keep the lights on all the time.

But the main point I’m trying to make here is that DRLs — and air bags — have their pros and their cons. No matter how highly you esteem the pros, it is outrageous to impose the costs on anyone.

Bad enough the market’s been twisted into a Byzantine mishmash of corporate statism and lingering fumes of free choice. But the fact is people are dying as a result.

And the fact that others are “living” doesn’t help the dead much.


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4 Responses to “Safety Winners – And Losers”

  1. ivan says:

    Two comments: MINI Coopers come to the States with the DRL off.
    The other point I wanted to make was that with DRL, many people don't turn their headlights on in the dark and then drive without any taillights. How is that foe safety?

  2. Soby says:

    As much as I think motorcyclists need all the protection they can get, applying the same principle that makes motorcycles more visible to other motor vehicles is not a mistake. Cars with lights on are more visible and if DRLs make cars more visible when there would be no lights on otherwise, then they are a safety boost.

    The problem I have with DRLs lies in their implementation by automakers. I have a VW and it has DRLs on all the time. When I turn on my headlights, these shutoff and my dashboard lights up.

    There are other cars that require the DRLs to be turned on manually and doing so will also light up the dashboard. THIS IS TERRIBLE. Most of the people you see driving around at night without rear lights on have their DRLs on, which lights up their dashboard but doesn't actually turn on the head or tail lights. This is a serious design flaw and should be eliminated in future models if not also recalled from previous models.

    It should be either no DRLs at all or full-time DRLs that shutoff when headlights/taillights/dashboard are turned on.

    • Jim Walker says:

      First off DRLs on cars has never, ever been proven in the US to do any good. Second, if you have to TURN ON your DRLs, they are not DRLs.

      The main point of DRLs is a draw attention to you (basically your trying to be an a$$) and make sure everyone sees you. Well, if they are watching you like you so desperately want them too, will they see that child that just ran out in the road because you had their attention with your "safety" lights? You better hope they do, for that childs sake.

  3. Maggie says:

    Excellent article…I am not a fan of DRL's and will never get a vehicle with them. I wonder if any lives have been saved by DRL's- I suspect some have been hurt and/or lost by them. I saw someone almost killed by them on the highway once. I was behind someone who had DRL's on but no tail lights…either the sensors on their automatic lights were broken or they just didn't turn on the lights because they didn't know they were off. There are a lot of dangerous points to DRL's and I never even considered the ones you mentioned in your article. When you get into your vehicle at night and start the car and you can see because your DRL's go on, you don't even think about the fact that you have no tail lights and away you go! I have heard of many people who have gotten tickets for not having their lights on but that is a small price compared to getting killed or maimed. Back to my story: I flashed my lights at the vehicle ahead of me, trying to let them know that they had no tail lights–the car was visible but not really easy to see. Either they didn't see me or they thought I was nuts because the lights stayed off. Ultimately I passed the car and basically forgot about it. I just happened to check my mirrors just as the car, now behind me, almost got creamed…it was so close…the accident was avoided by inches. The driver must have just about had a heart attack and about 45 seconds after the incident, I saw the yellow parking lights go on, which often is the only difference in the front lights between running lights and full headlights, so he finally realized that his lights weren't on. (Often the DRL's are the full brightness of the headlights and the only difference in the front is that that the parking lights go on when the official "headlights" go on.) It was then that I realized just how dangerous DRL's are. We can't know if any lights have been saved by DRL's but I bet lives have been at least hurt, maybe lost by them. Not all Fords have DRL's but most that do used to turn them on right when you started the car, now many of them don't go on until you put the car in gear. In new Chevys, at least the ones I have seen, you CAN'T turn the lights off. The lights are set at auto and you can manually turn on the parking or headlights but you can't turn the lights off. You can switch the dial to "off" but when you let it go, it pops back to automatic…they won't stay in the off position. These little changes indicate to me that companies are adjusting things to protect themselves from lawsuits. I wonder how many suits there have been that just haven't hit the papers?? I bet quite a few! Another danger point of DRL's is that automatic lights, which depend on sensors to detect that it is dark and then turn on the lights, don't detect darkness in FOG, or most RAINSTORMS, or even most SNOW STORMS (it isn't usually dark enough), and these are times when you really want your full lights on..people just come to rely on the auto lights when they can really let you down!! Why do people want to trust electronics over their own prowess?? They get dull and thoughtless and leave themselves open to bad things happening. Self reliance feels good, gives you an edge, keeps you keen and alive both physically and mentally/spiritually. Electronics fail and they are hard to track! Consider the new electronically stacked fork lift an acquaintance told me of…it was almost brand new with the latest technology and all of a sudden it wouldn't work. The fix-it professional came and plugged it into the diagnostic computer and according to the computer, it was fine!! I didn't hear the end of the story but they were reduced to taking out each electronic component and hoping to find the malfunction piecemeal…how much time and effort and money did that cost? Electronics, in their place, are great, but people rely on them too much. I think they have stopped making the rear view mirrors that had the 'blind spot' lights, probably because people would look in the mirror to see the light rather than look at what was reflected in the mirror..if you have your mirrors set correctly and move you head just a bit, you pretty much don't have any blind spots. Back in my school days (cold war times) there was a great comic in our school paper who said, "If the Russians ever want to take over the USA, all they have to do is make all the cross walks say "Do not walk", now (speaking of the Russians and taking over, good old Putin is back) all they have to do is hack the GPS satellites and have everyone's GPS send them over a cliff!! If people aren't aware enough to turn on their headlights by themselves without prompting from the the Gov't or sensors…the future doesn't look so good…If we aren't capable of driving safely and thoughtfully, how are we to take care of ourselves, much less raise happy, healthy, capable children (life's highest duty/privilege), or vote to give ourselves and our children a great place to live (really LIVE, not just exist) and learn and grow?