The dangers of driving at night

Neil Bartlett

Nighttime is when the ghouls and ghosts come out – and it’s also when everyone drives at their worst. Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that the nighttime death rate per mile is about three times higher than during the day.

When it comes to your auto insurance coverage, the time of day that a crash occurs doesn’t really matter, says Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. “If you’re driving drunk at 8 a.m. or at 2 a.m. – they’re equally bad,” she says.

But when you drive at night, you’re at greater risk for a crash, no matter your age or any other factor – and a crash can drive up your auto insurance rates.

Teenage drivers are especially vulnerable to crashing at night. “Driving at night is the number one crash-causing factor for drivers age 16 to 19,” says Bernie Fette, senior research specialist at the Texas Transportation Institute.

The institute conducted a study of fatal nighttime crashes in the U.S. from 1999 to 2008. During that period, the number of teens 16 to19 in fatal nighttime crashes rose by more than 10 percent. Researchers suspect driving distractions combined with a lack of nighttime driving experience led to this increase.

Unfortunately, driving at night as a risk factor for crashes hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Based on interviews that the Texas Transportation Institute conducted with nearly 20,000 Texas teenagers, only 3 percent thought nighttime driving risk was a major factor in crashes.

Why is nighttime driving more dangerous?

Teenagers aren’t the only ones affected by driving at night. Those in all age groups complain about how difficult it is, says Dr. Teri Geist, an optometrist at Midwest Eye Care in Nebraska. And it mostly comes down to vision impairment.

During the day, your eye’s pupil blocks light. But at night, the pupil expands, making it harder to focus.

“You get a lot more glare,” Geist says. Furthermore, when you drive at night, you lose your peripheral vision – you can’t see movement and objects outside your direct line of sight.

Driving at sunset is even more challenging. “It’s a tough lighting situation – your eyes have to handle a lot of glare, with bad peripheral vision cues,” Geist says.

If you wear prescription glasses, an anti-glare lens or coating will cut down the glare.

Dry eyes also can contribute to nighttime glare. Staring at your computer terminal all day can affect the surface of your eyes. Using an artificial tears-type lubricant throughout the day will help your eyes at night. “If you wait until your eyes are burning, you’ve waited too long,” Geist says. If you use them throughout the day, you’ll benefit when you’re behind the wheel after dark.

Another big factor that contributes to the danger of nighttime driving is sleepiness. It can lead to slower reaction times, worsened vision and coordination, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information. Studies show that being awake for more than 20 hours is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent. That’s the legal limit in all states.

Steer clear of nighttime crashes

Here are five tips for reducing your chances of getting into a nighttime crash

  • Clean your headlights
  • Drive a little below the speed limit. There’s no law stating you have to drive at the limit. Research from the Texas Transport Institute shows that the faster you drive at night, the more severe the crash.
  • Say no to distractions. After dark, your field of vision is severely limited.  Don’t text or fiddle with the radio. Don’t do anything that keeps you from giving your full attention to driving.
  • Try to avoid night driving when you’re tired.
  • Turn off your cellphone.

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