Automatic Headlights Aren’t Good Enough Anymore

Allow me a moment to describe a scenario to you: It’s dark and visibility is poor; maybe there’s snow falling, or it’s raining enough to obscure the view of what else is on the road. Yet cruising in the adjacent lane is a vehicle with its exterior lights off, the driver oblivious to their oversight.

Far too familiar, right? Particularly during winter when daylight dwindles and the flurries fly or during the spring when rainstorms happen more frequently, the failure of our fellow drivers to turn on their lights before taking to the roads can be aggravating. But the blame doesn’t lie squarely on the shoulders of the absentminded, and it’s time the industry and government alike did more to keep vehicles safe and seen.

Sure, the federal government has new lighting standards on the way, but they come up short in terms of mandating anything meaningful. As of September 2021, all new vehicles sold in Canada will be required to come with one of three features aimed at improved safety: automatic lighting, daytime running lights front and back, or a dashboard that remains unlit when the exterior lighting is off.

While the latter two options are promising, giving automakers the option to continue offering the same style of automatic lights that have been around for years fails to address the same shortcoming that’s been a thorn in our collective side: people forgetting to flick their lights to the auto position.

My daily drive into the autoTRADER.ca HQ isn’t long; just about 12 km each way. Yet I encounter countless vehicles each day driving in the dark. These are what Transport Canada likes to call “phantom cars” – vehicles that aren’t fully lit and, thus, not fully visible to the other motorists on our roads. And while older vehicles are part of the problem, all too often it’s newer vehicles with automatic lighting systems that are being driven without their lighting systems turned on.

Automatic lighting in its current form – sensors detect low ambient light and engage a vehicle’s lighting system when necessary – is little more than a better-than-nothing solution, as the default position is off, leaving the system vulnerable to human error. A simple resolution would be lights that are on by default. After all, there are far fewer (if any) reasons to drive with your lights off than on. In fact, I can’t think of a single one.

While automakers are busy refining advanced safety features like adaptive cruise control and automatic braking systems, it seems the fundamental ones like adequate lighting have been left behind. Part of that comes down to profits – buyers are willing to shell out more for the latest technology, but you’d be hard-pressed to find people who are willing to pay a premium for improved lighting controls. And since automakers aren’t in the business of giving stuff away for free, they focus their attention on what makes the most fiscal sense.

Some automakers deserve some pre-emptive credit. Honda, for example, is equipping vehicles with signal stalks where the default lighting setting is auto, forcing users to manually turn them off if they so choose. (And once again, I can’t think of a good reason to do so.) However, far too many out there are slow to adopt such simple change, instead sticking to the type that needs its automatic setting engaged.

I’ve watched this industry long enough to see automakers undertake some impressive innovation at their own behest. However, I’ve worked in it long enough to know that watered-down mandates like the upcoming lighting directive from Transport Canada doesn’t go far enough to effect any real change.