- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2001

Not all bright ideas are good ones Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) being a case in point. Many new vehicles are equipped from the factory with so-called "hard-wired" DRLs that keep the headlights on at all times, even when it's the middle of a July afternoon.

The idea behind DRLs or at least, the rationale trotted out by the automakers who install the things is that they make cars more visible and thus are a needed "safety" device.

This seemingly self-evident truth becomes a little less self-evident, though, when you take into account the glare created by DRLs which can decrease, rather than improve, visibility. Anyone who has had a DRL-equipped SUV come up behind them understands this quite well. DRLs also arguably add confusion to the driving environment by making police and emergency vehicles (as well as funeral processions and motorcyclists) less conspicuous.

Another subtle but nonetheless important side effect of DRLs is that they further encourage inattentive driving. For example, motorists operating cars equipped with DRLs often forget to turn on their headlights as evening approaches because the DRL system has the headlights on already. However, the vehicle's tail-lights and side marker lights do not illuminate with the DRLs; the driver must activate the now-redundant "headlight" switch to turn them on.

Ironically, DRLs are not required by federal law as air bags, padded dashboards and seat belts are. We are saddled with them largely because of a cost-saving measure adopted by General Motors, America's largest automaker, in the 1990s.

GM, which has considerable operations in Canada, had to manufacture two separate lighting systems for the vehicles it built one for U.S.-bound cars, the other for Canada-bound cars. Why? Canadian law requires DRLs in keeping with the low-light conditions that exist in many of the provinces of that nation, which is much closer to the Arctic Circle than the lower 49 U.S. states.

The problem for GM was that building different lighting systems cost money; not a whole lot per car but when you are talking about hundreds of thousands of vehicles annually, it's not pocket change. So GM decided to simplify things by equipping all its cars with DRLs and touting them as a "safety advance" even though in areas with normal light conditions that is something of a stretch.

Other automakers have, unfortunately, followed GM's lead and today, DRLs are everywhere. In addition to GM, Volvo, Subaru, Toyota/Lexus and VW now install hard-wired DRLs on all their new vehicles. Of the larger automakers, Ford, BMW and Mercedes are among the holdouts.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is in the process of considering new rules regarding DRLs relating to glare and also the issue of requiring that the automakers render their DRL systems subject to being disabled or turned-off, as opposed to the hard-wired (e.g., you can't turn the DRLs off) systems in use at present.

DRLs, like air bags, are a mixed blessing at the least. Hopefully, NHTSA will not make the same mistake with DRLs that it made with air bags and give people a choice.

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