The sun going down means cooler temps, campfires, or a cozy binge in front of the TV. It’s also when driving can become a pain in the neck. For many people, driving at night feels more dangerous and less comfortable than daytime driving.
What can you do to make this unavoidable task better, easier, or safer? Here are the hows and whys of driving at night.
The Concerns about Driving at Night
First up, a few facts about nighttime driving: The National Safety Council calls out nighttime as the most dangerous time to drive. This is due to half of all accidents taking place at night, even though the majority of drivers are on the road during daylight hours.
Night driving can be anxiety-inducing and dangerous for a few reasons, partly thanks to the anatomy of our eyes. If you remember science class, all those rods and cones in your eyeball are great for light sensitivity, but require lots of light to work properly. Humans also don’t have a tapetum lucidum layer, which gives animals the glow-in-the-dark effect and helps them see at night. Unlike those lucky cats, frogs, and owls, our peripheral vision, depth perception, and color recognition all take a hit when it’s dark.
Speaking of owls, if you aren’t a night owl, you’re probably more tired at night than during the daytime. This is just your natural circadian rhythm at work, with different flows of energy throughout the day and night and a normal low point after midnight. Driving during a low point of energy makes it harder to pay attention or react quickly, especially driving in a comfortable car with low or calming background noise.
Experts estimate that “an average of 328,000 crashes annually, including 109,000 crashes that result in injuries and 6,400 fatal crashes, involve a drowsy driver.” Possibly scarier, one in 25 drivers over 18 reported having fallen asleep while driving in the past 30 days, according to the CDC.
Before you declare that you’re never going to drive at night again, consider these tips for nighttime driving.
How to Make Night Driving Safer
We can try our best to avoid adding to those statistics. The following list is a comprehensive guide to making night driving safer for yourself and everyone else on the road.
Turn the headlights on about an hour before dusk.
By law, you have to turn your headlights on 30 minutes after sunset, but you can turn them on early. This helps other drivers see you more clearly at dusk but also lets you see easily in that transition time of long shadows, fading colors, and low contrast.
Clean your car’s windshield inside and out.
We've explained before how to take care of your windshield. Keeping it clean helps prevent damage, and it also prevents buildup on the inside and outside that can cause a glare. Take any glass cleaner and a microfiber towel to both sides of the windshield, or if you’re stuck in a 1950s movie, rub with a wad of newspaper. Yes, that actually works.
Replace your windshield wipers.
This is among the simplest vehicle maintenance tasks you can perform, even if you have zero mechanical ability. Change out any old, worn, broken, or flopping wipers for new ones and you’ll get a streak-free view of the night.
Adjust your headlights so they’re pointed in the proper direction.
This one may not be for everyone, depending on your ability and the make and model of your vehicle. Check your owner’s manual for how to adjust the headlight aim and take the time (or have your local mechanic take their time) to adjust as necessary. This realignment will prevent you from blinding other drivers and will keep more light on the road, where it’s most needed.
Clean your headlights.
If you don’t wash your car much, or ever, odds are your headlights are coated in a film of grime: everything from dust and dirt to splattered bugs and asphalt slag. Take a minute to scrub all that off with any mild household detergent or regular car wash soap. Your lights will thank you.
Consider restoring or replacing old headlights.
Do you have cloudy, faded, foggy headlights? A worn-out headlight housing reduces your headlight output, but there's a fix for that. Go to any auto parts store or search online for a “headlight restoration kit.” If you can use sandpaper, you can do this yourself in about an hour. Restoring headlight clarity will dramatically improve your nighttime view of the road — and it makes your ride look better.
Avoid looking directly at oncoming vehicles.
This one seems to be a no-brainer, but sometimes drivers do it without thinking about it. Looking at a bright source of light temporarily but massively reduces your night vision. This happens because your pupils constrict with the bright light, and then it takes them a few minutes to dilate, or expand, and readjust to the darkness.
Turn off or dim the car’s interior and dash lights.
Take a tip from your local pilots’ association and turn down your interior lighting at night. Commercial pilots do this in their airplanes to pre-adjust their eyes for darkness.
Add night vision.
Taking tips and tricks from pilots one step further, the obvious solution to nighttime driving is to add night vision to your ride. If you like tech gadgets, you’re in luck, as you can add night vision cameras, complete with a full-color display, for around $100. If you’re shopping for a new vehicle anyway, look to Cadillac Night Vision (or similar from other brands) for a built-in experience that helps make night driving much safer.
Minimize distractions inside the car.
Mitsubishi used to air commercials of passengers dancing in the passenger seat. It was distracting in the ad (and outdated now), and it’s even worse when you’re driving. To reduce your distractions, let passengers know they need to save their dancing for the dance floor — and keep your phone docked out of sight.
Drive slower than you would during the day.
This one is not fun, necessarily, but it honestly works. Just as if you were driving in heavy rain, fog, or snow, or some other limited-vision scenario, ease up on the gas pedal to make braking distances shorter. Bonus: You’ll save fuel, too.
Increase the distance between your car and other cars.
Again, treat nighttime driving like it is raining or snowing, even if the weather is pleasant. The increased following distance gives you more time to react to the situation ahead of you.
Stop frequently and get out and walk around.
When driving long distances, stop occasionally to get out and walk around. Add to your daily step count to help your circulation and give yourself a quick mental and physical boost before continuing the drive.
If you feel drowsy, pull over to get some sleep.
Remember the scary stats above about drowsy driving? Don’t do that. Even an expensive hotel is way cheaper than a car accident and the resulting medical expenses. Pro tip: If you know you are going to sleep in your vehicle, bring a pillow and blanket from home to massively increase your sleep quality.
If you wear glasses, ask for anti-reflective coating, and keep your glasses clean.
Anti-reflective coatings work in all kinds of situations, not just night driving, making the cost easier to justify. Meanwhile, cleaning your glasses is free. If you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t wear glasses, search for “night vision glasses” online. These yellow “As Seen On TV!” glasses reduce reflections and glare to provide better nighttime vision, even for people with 20/20 vision.
See an eye doctor if you notice your night vision is getting worse.
This tip could end up saving you the most, and not just financially. If your eyesight is bothering you at night, schedule an eye exam with your local ophthalmologist. You could have a potential medical problem with your eyes, and an exam by an eye care professional may save your vision.
A Little Preparation Helps You Drive More Safely at Night
These 16 tips can help anyone, at any age, feel better about driving once the sun goes down — or in any dark situation, including tunnels and pre-rain storm conditions. Prepare your car and yourself for nighttime driving to stay safe and keep others safe, too.