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Faulty Headlights Can Contribute To Car Accidents

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GARNER — More than half of all fatal accidents happen at night, in large part because drivers simply cannot see as well. Mis-aimed, dim, or burned-out headlights increase the chances of an accident happening.

As the sun set at a driving track in Garner, safety expert Ed Livesay set up an experiment to illuminate the effectiveness of headlights. The challenge is to improve visibility without blinding other drivers.

WRAL put three different vehicles to the test: a car, a minivan and an SUV.

The aim was to determine how well drivers could see Stephanie, a test subject who wore a dark jacket and light jeans standing 400 feet away.

North Carolina law says headlights should allow drivers to see 400 feet down the road. Livesay marked the ground of a driving track every ten feet, then he asked drivers to say when they could see Stephanie.

In WRAL's test, only the driver in the minivan with high beams on could see Stephanie at 400 feet.

But on low beam, the vehicles were more even. Stephanie's dark jacket disappeared between 155 and 190 feet for all three drivers.

"Well, when I was outside of the car I felt like I could see the person pretty clearly, but inside when you're looking out there, it was surprising how fast she disappeared even with the high beams on," says Mark Weldon, who drove the SUV.

Had Stephanie been wearing all black, and each car had its low beams on, even at a speed of 35 mph, the drivers would have likely hit her.

"I mean, we knew she was there and you had to really look at her," says Patti Soars, who drove the minivan. "I mean if she was walking down the street and I was driving down, I would never have noticed."

Marilyn Witham, who drove the car, says the light-colored pants Stephanie wore made a great difference.

"You couldn't see her upper part, you could just see her lower part," Witham says.

In normal driving conditions, drivers do not always expect something to appear in the road in front of them. It takes a couple of seconds for them to identify the object, then realize they have to put their foot on the brake. But in that short amount of time, going 55 mph, drivers will be on the object before they know it.

"The problem is that we're in automobiles that are much faster than our human responses can be," Livesay says.

Drivers also face the dilemma of giving another driver better visibility without annoying others.

"The low beams are pointed downward, and to the right as well, so there is realistically a hole as far as the light pattern," Livesay says.

An object approaching from the driver's side is much more difficult to see even with proper headlights.

The test drivers went home saying the experiment was eye-opening.

"I've never ever hit anybody, and I hope I never do, but that is really scary," Soars says.

The minivan may have had better visibility in the test only because the headlights were brand new. The lightbeam is more diffused on older ones.

To avoid a tragedy, safety experts recommend a number of ways to avoid a tragedy.
  • Clean your headlights once a week and especially after it rains.
  • Have a mechanic aim your lights.
  • Be careful using your high beams so you do not blind other drivers.
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