Driving at night: 10 safety tips for nighttime navigation

December 28, 2020

Driving it night can be dangerous - but it doesn't have to be! Follow these 10 safety tips to help you navigate the night


A man driving at night

In the best of circumstances, driving can be a dangerous venture. We have to monitor our speed, keep an eye on the vehicles around us, and do our best to minimize distractions. Unfortunately, all of these tasks become more difficult when you take away a rather helpful element - the sun! Without the light of day, driving becomes an even more challenging task, but that doesn't mean you can't do it safely. If you have to hit the road after the sun sets, be sure to follow these 10 safety tips for driving at night!

Is driving at night more dangerous? 


While it is certainly true that some of people have an easier time driving at night than others, there is no doubt that it is more dangerous than driving during the day. According to the National Safety Council, half of traffic-related deaths occur during the night, even though there are far fewer cars on the road.

So why might this be the case? Apart from the obvious fact that our visibility is limited by low light scenarios, our eyes simply don't function as well during the night. The low light impacts our depth perception, color recognition, and peripheral vision and simply impares our reaction time in general. Couple that with issues relating to sleep and fatigue and it's easy to see why driving at night requires far more caution than driving during the day. 

1.  Be extra cautious of other drivers


Although driving at night might challenge your own driving skills, it's important to be aware of the difficulties other drivers are experiencing and bringing to the table, too. At night, the road may generally have fewer cars, but it's just as important, if not more so, to keep an eye out for those who share it. 

While encountering drunk drivers can happen any time of the day, they tend to be more frequent at night. The same is true for drowsy driving; people can doze off in broad daylight, but it usually happens at night. Lastly, if you have issues with visibility at night, you have to imagine that there are others out there that do as well. 

With all of these factors at play, it is essential to be mindful of other vehicles when driving at night. 

2. Clean your windshield and mirrors


You may not notice them during the day, but contaminants like oils, dirt, handprints, smudges, and smeers make it much more difficult to see during the night. They can cause the light from street lights and headlights to scatter, which creates hotspots - areas where the dirty glass causes visual distortions.

Mirrors also need to be clean in order to give you the best view possible, but they can also make driving more difficult if they are angled incorrectly. Adjust your mirrors, especially your center rear-view mirror, so that headlights coming from behind you don't shine directly into your eyes. Many rear-view mirrors feature a night setting, which dims any light that it catches. 

3. Inspect and test your lights


When you're driving at night, your headlights are the most important tools you have at your disposal, so it's important that they work properly. If you haven't used your headlights in a while, set aside some time before you need them to make sure they're working correctly. If it's a new car, or your first time driving a particular car, make sure you understand exactly how to turn on the headlights and the high beams - some controls are more intuitive than others. 

The protective plastic covering around your lights can also become dirty with time. The dirt from the road can obstruct and scatter or dim the light, and sometimes moisture can accumulate inside the housing. If you know you're going to be driving at night, take some time to inspect the covering and ensure that it is clean. 

Lastly, make sure that your headlights are correctly angled towards the road. If they are too high or low, they won't properly illuminate the road in front of you. Depending on the make and model of your car, adjusting the angle of your headlights may be something you can do easily enough on your own. However, you may find that a quick trip to the mechanic is in order. 

4. Increase your follow distance and reduce speed


Driving at night reduces your visibility, which can easily delay your reaction time. Although your headlights certainly help you see the road, they only extend so far. Furthermore, if you're following behind another vehicle, it's important to recognize that they are in the same situation. That is to say, their reaction time is reduced, too. 

That's why it's so important to give yourself enough distance to adequately interpret a situation and react. You'll often hear the "two-second rule" repeated as the minimum safe following distance, but you should increase that to at least three or four at night. 

Because situations can quickly come out of the darkness at night, traveling at a high rate of speed makes it far more difficult to stop or adjust your course. That's why reducing your speed in general is an important part of staying safe while driving at night.

5. Don't stare into oncoming lights 


Do your best to avoid staring directly into the headlights of oncoming traffic. As your eyes adjust to low-light conditions, the pupils expand, allowing more light in. This means that a sudden, intense beam of light, such as those from an oncoming car, can easily disrupt your night vision and make it difficult to see for several moments after. Instead of staring straight ahead, briefly divert your eyes down and to the right and use the white stripe to stay on course. 

6. Avoid driving when drowsy


Driving drowsy is incredibly dangerous and causes many of the same side effects that one experiences while intoxicated. Your reaction time is stunted, and you can easily lose control of your vehicle if you nod off for even a split second. Although some tactics, like drinking caffeine, may work for some people on occasion, the truth is that there is no surefire method that is consistently effective for everyone.

For this reason, it is essential to be aware of your level of fatigue before getting behind the wheel. If you fear that you might nod off, it's best to find another way home or wait it out and rest where you are if possible. If you become drowsy while driving and find yourself drifting off, your best bet is to find a safe place to pull over. 

7. Keep the cabin lights dim


Interior lights can impact your night vision and make it more difficult to see what's happening on the road. Your eyes need time to adjust to the darkness outside the car and bright dash or dome lights can disrupt this process.

If possible, dim your dashboard lights and request that passengers either turn off the map and dome lights, or at least direct them away from your line of sight. 

8. Be extra cautious of wildlife


While the roads at night typically have less traffic, nocturnal animals may be out in force - especially in more rural areas. Deer, wild hogs, opossums, racoons, armadillos, and other creatures can often be found in and around roads, so staying alert is essential for both you and the critters!

If your route takes you through dark or windy rural roads, take note of your surroundings and be prepared to stop. Swerving to avoid an animal that jumps in front of your vehicle can be disastrous, so reduce your speed beforehand to allow ample stopping time. You may not be able to see the entire animal right away, but look out for their glowing eyes as your headlights bounce off their retinas. 

9. Don't allow yourself to become distracted


While you should always do your best to minimize distractions while driving, this is especially true while driving at night. Glancing at your phone can ruin your night vision, and it's even more difficult to be certain that the road is clear. Simply put, you need all of the reaction time and focus you can get.

10. Plan for the route with the best lighting


If at all possible, plan your travels ahead of time to try and limit the amount of night driving you have to do. Of course, this isn't always possible, but you may be able to reduce the number of outings if you make a conscious effort to do so. 
 
If you can't avoid driving at night, think about the route options you have for your journey. You might find that there are some paths that have better lighting - maybe they go through a part of town with more street lights (or better street lights). Even if these are a little longer, a well-lit alternative may be worth it.

A car with bright headlights driving at night

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by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.