How LED Daytime Running Lights And LCD Instruments Are Making You Less Safe

The night, I’m told, is dark and full of terrors. That’s why we have lights on our cars. And while lighting is unquestionably better than it’s ever been, ironically, two pieces of relatively new lighting technology actually seem to be making things worse, visibility-wise, partially because they’re too good. Let me explain.

The two technologies in question are LED daytime running lamps (DRLs) and LCD dashboard instruments, both of which are becoming more and more common on cars across the spectrum. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with these features. In fact, they’re pretty great: the LED DRLs are bright and very noticeable, and LCD instruments are incredibly flexible and (usually) highly legible in almost all lighting conditions.


So, those bits of electrical kit work well; no question. That’s why it’s interesting that these two technologies have been installed on the surprising number of cars I’ve been seeing cars driving either at night or in genuinely crappy, dark, rainy, sodden weather without their actual lights on.

I’ve been seeing a lot of these cars lately; drivers of new cars blithely tooling down the road at night without their headlights, marker lights, or taillights on. The drivers never realize that they haven’t turned on their lights because, from their perspective, they already seem to be on.

The drivers are fooled because their bright LED DRLs are casting just enough light to seem like their headlights are on, and their dashboard LED instruments are casting light no matter if the lights are on or off.


Crotchety old bastards like myself still remember a time when it was obvious you were driving without lights, because before DRLs you couldn’t see shit out the window, and before LCD instruments, your dashboard was as dark and quiet as a hibernating bear’s armpit unless you actually turned your lights on.


Modern cars with always-illuminated instrument panels often use a tiny green idiot light to let you know when your lights are on, and it looks sort of like a pair of alien landers on a collision course or a couple of jellyfish just about to have that first kiss. It’s small, subtle, and I’d be willing to wager that the average driver has no idea what the fuck it means.

The problem is that the LCD dash has taken away the biggest visual indicator that your lights are on at night – you can see your instruments – and the DRLs are just bright enough to make you think your lights are on, especially in a city.


Of course, DRLs don’t include taillights, so in the dark or bad weather, drivers fooled by bright LED DRLs are effectively invisible from the rear (DOT-required reflectors help, but in crappy weather or fog, without taillights, you really can’t see cars ahead of you).


While I haven’t done a formal study, I’ve seen enough cars driving around like this for me to believe this is a genuine issue. Many cars now include automatic lights that would solve this if – and this is a huge if – drivers always kept the switch on AUTO. They very often don’t, because I’ve seen them.

As always, instead of cursing the darkness, I’m here to turn on some headlights, so I have a solution: we need a very big and obvious indicator to let people know lights are on. Something to replace that gut-level indicator of a whole dark dash when lights were off on old cars.


I’m thinking that little stupid light needs to turn into some big, full-instrument-cluster width bar-like indicator when lights are on. Something you can’t ignore or overlook. When the brights are on, it can get that standard blue bright icon on it, too, but whatever it is, it needs to be obvious and clear about what’s going on.


I’m not sure how many of you have encountered this as well, and I know that there’s been idiots who don’t seem to understand the concept of turning on a light in the dark since there’s been acetylene lanterns on horse-free carriages. But I do know that in the last week alone I’ve seen an F-Type, two Audis, and a Honda all driving around in the dark and/or heavy rain without any lights on save their DRLs, and it happens pretty consistently.

I don’t think it’s really the fault of the drivers, though. Technology changed without considering the effect it would have on drivers. A long-established visual cue for lights being on (the illuminated dash, as opposed to the dark instruments of lights off) was replaced with a completely useless new indicator. It’s time to make this right, and I don’t think it’s hard to do, at all.


The Lord of Light commands it.

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)