Illustration for article titled You (Probably) Need To Turn Off Your Goddamn High Beams
Photo: Sharat Ganapati (Flickr)

Chances are, your headlights suck. It’s probably not your fault. Manufacturers routinely miss the mark when it comes to illumination, or make you pay out the nose for lights that do what they should. But that doesn’t mean you should turn on your high beams to make up for what your bulbs can’t do. In fact, you probably need to turn those goddamn brights off.

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I’ve long felt that high-beams are abused far too much. Most of the driving I’ve done has happened on busy roads in the Northeast, between Boston and New York. On these roads, particularly divided highways like the Merritt Parkway and I-95, but also on surface streets here in New York City, traffic is almost always heavy. If you can’t see at least three other cars around you on these roads, something is probably wrong. And yet I feel like I’m almost constantly bombarded with blinding light from behind me, shining in my rear-view mirror and pulling my eyes off the road in front of me.

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Of course, part of this problem comes from the aggressiveness of drivers up here. It’s not just about using the lights at all. It’s about how they’re used. If you are diligent about turning them on and off as you crest hills, when you meet another oncoming driver, or when you find yourself on a properly-lighted stretch of road, this article isn’t about you. But plenty of drivers up here do a few things wrong that drive me crazy, partially because the light is personally irritating to me while I’m driving but mostly because they’ve turned a safety feature into a full-on hazard.

Rather than using their high-beams properly on empty, poorly lit roads and dipping them when they’re supposed to, these drivers keep them on at all times, even in poor weather where rain, snow, and fog can bounce beams around, defeating the purpose and creating a hazard for everyone else on the road. It’s better than relying on only daytime running lights (a danger in itself), but these lights have a specific purpose and misusing them is dangerous.

So what’s at stake here? Distraction, mostly. We talk constantly about the distraction caused by new technology in cars. Whether it’s cell phone use, convoluted infotainment systems that require more attention than the knobs and switches they’ve replaced or doing any manner of non-driving activities while behind the wheel (even, or especially, when partial automation is in use), it’s not news that distraction is an immense safety issue. But what we need to remember is that some kinds of distraction might be a lot more basic than futzing with the soundtrack but still pose a threat.

Getting dazzled by high-beams isn’t just annoying. It’s dangerous. When you see high beams in your mirror or across the double line from you, all you see is the light, not the rest of the road where plenty of other hazards are hiding. While your eye tracks the brights coming towards you (or, even worse, creeping up behind you).

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It’s not like this is a new problem but my feeling is that it’s getting worse. LED lightbars built for off-road use are becoming more popular. They’re inexpensive and give a real jolt to any car’s illumination. But they have no place on a Toyota Highlander on Uber Pool duty in the outer boroughs. None. No justification whatsoever.

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Now, I should be clear. This screed against high-powered diodes and hopped-up halogens isn’t directed at people driving on empty roads. I’ve been to places like Canada and Scandinavia, where large driving lights aren’t just popular, they’re a necessity. With big animals and other hazards out there where other drivers might be miles and miles away, a properly bright set-up of stock high-beams and a couple of halogen driving lights or a bar of LEDs makes a lot of sense. It’s just safety.

Adding to that, I’m still a big fan of high-beams as communication. I was brought up to give a little flash or two to oncoming drivers when there’s a speed trap lurking behind a roadside sign or grove of trees, and I see no problem with a little tap of the beams when someone might not be aware that they’re hogging the left lane.

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But it’s all about courtesy, of course. Flash too often (or too close to the bumper in front of you) and you risk being misinterpreted and ruining the whole notion of flashing-as-communication for the rest of us by alienating the drivers around you.

Interestingly, the issue of light abuse isn’t new. Automakers have been trying to make high beams more usable and less offensive to. other drivers for generations. Cadillac’s Autronic Eye was meant to dip high-beams (and control a host of other headlight features) automatically back in 1958. Of course, Tucker, Citroën, Tatra, and others were already working on directional headlights that further improved visibility as early as 1948 too.

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I’m not exactly sure how to combat the scourge of high-beam misuse beyond writing about how frustrating it is to me until more effective, but it’s worth noting that China has taken a rather hard line on the issue. And while I appreciate the enthusiasm, I don’t think anyone should be subjected to the blinding light of high-beams as punishment. We’ve moved on from Hammurabi-style eye-for-an-eye justice, I’d like to think.

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Eventually, regulations will change and adaptive headlights that use more advanced versions of what Cadillac was onto more than sixty years ago will become legal and common on production cars here in America. The word is that these headlights will be much better at lighting the road and staying clear of other drivers’ eyes. AAA thinks so. European safety regulators have already put them in place. It’s time for us to do ourselves a favor and get them on our roads already. For everyone’s sake.

Max Finkel is a Weekend Contributor at Jalopnik.

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