By on May 19, 2017

BMW E60 Angel Eyes, Image: Wikimedia Commons

TTAC commentator idesigner writes:

Sajeev,

Last night during my drive home I saw something I see all too often: In the year is 2017, there are still cars and trucks that don’t have all their driving light on! Instead, they’ll only illuminate their front lights (and I can imagine dash light as well) but not tail or side lights.

What’s up with this? Aren’t auto manufacturers smart enough to fix this phenomenon? Why isn’t there a sound like the seat belt chime that tells you your lights are not on?

Sajeev answers

This reminds me of the time my mother received a warning from the police for not having her 1983 Continental Valentino‘s headlights on. Her valid-ish rationale was as follows:

  • Westheimer Road is well-lit, especially at dusk, and bright enough to not notice the lack of headlights.”
  • “The Valentino’s newfangled digital gauges are always illuminated!”
  • “The car-wash staff must’ve turned off the automatic headlight switch while cleaning inside, and I just assumed they were on!”

The late 1980s are not 2017, but the same phenomenon applies today as many new cars have:

  • Daytime running lights and/or purely ornamental LED eye-catchers incorporated into the front fascia.
  • Backlit gauges with multifunction screens that never turn off if the car is running.
  • A factory automatic headlight system either not ordered or owner-defeated.

So why can’t automakers fix this problem? Perhaps they will in 2018: headlight activation (with an integral low voltage cut-off like aftermarket stereo amplifiers) when the mandatory back-up camera senses darkness (or concentrated lighting from headlights behind) sounds pretty logical. In theory.

In reality, a dedicated ambient light sensor is likely necessary, which is another cost to pass down to the consumer’s wallet. Perhaps this is a problem with insufficient demand for a solution. What say you, Best and Brightest?

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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121 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Underutilized Headlight Phenomenon...”


  • avatar
    KevinB

    I notice this quite often at dusk. I blame this on the fact that dash lights are on continuously. Back in the day I would merely notice I could no longer read my gauges to prompt me to turn my lights on. My lowly Cruz has auto headlights but I see newer and more expensive vehicles that don’t.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      They work surprisingly well. On the occasion I have to defeat it (entering military bases so as not to blind the guards), it automatically resets once I turn the car off.

      It’d be nice if I had rain-sensing wipers that also turned the headlights on. It’s the law here in VA.

      • 0 avatar
        snakebit

        It’s the law also in MA – if you need your wipers on (rain/snow), you need your headlights on, also. And no one, it seems, other than me adheres to that law. It’s been on the books for at least one year, and to be charitable to the drivers who ignore it, I bet this law wasn’t publicized well enough when it started to be in effect. Pertaining to drivers who are unaware during times nearing dusk in the evening that their lights are off – I guess we’re going to have to be vigilant to flash these cars when we see this, as we can’t retrofit a workable system to those older cars without warning lights or automatic default systems.

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          The auto-lights work with the wipers in later-vintage Hondas. (And also work very well, period!)

          The ambient sensor is placed such that the shadow of the wipers going across will activate the lights when the sun is hitting the front of the car at the proper angle; good for visibility to oncoming traffic.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            I highly doubt that your Honda is turning on the lights because of the shadow created by the wipers going back and forth. Way to narrow to block enough light and way to complicated to program an algorithm that can distinguish between that reduction in light with tree branches, overhead signs ect. I’m betting if you look at the wiring diagram you’ll find a wire from the wiper switch to the lighting control module or that the wipers and lighting control module are on the CAN Bus.

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      agreed. We keep the lights on auto on my wife’s CUV because it has the feature and it is pretty good about activating at dusk. if you’re not paying attention in the other 2 cars (’10 mazda3, 04 S2000) you could miss it though since they have always-on backlit instrument panel.

      The giveaway for either of those if you forget due to being in a well-lit area would be the stereo controls – nothing else besides the IP is backlit unless the headlights are on, so if you can’t read the buttons it’s definitely dark enough to hit the lights.

      OTOH, neither car has DRLs or LEDs that would trick you into thinking your lights are on either. I think I’ve forgot to put them on all of one time each during my ownership.

      As for auto-headlights, it’s not the price of the vehicle, it’s how far up in option packages you go generally. I know that some do have auto lights in base form though, but it’s limited at best.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        My Mother In Law just purchased a 2017 Mustang Convertible with the only options being the spare tire/jack package and the Foundry black 18″ wheel/spoiler package. It has auto lamps and lights with wipers. So the base model but not a car that is that low on the price spectrum.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      The dash lights being on all the time? Yep, that’s the cause. People see the dash lights on and assumes all the lights are on. The dash lights in my ’13 Tacoma are LED-backit, and the ’08 Sienna has the “Optitron” (electroluminescent) gauges. We always have to make sure the little green headlight symbol is lit.

      Automatic headlights would be the fix, but on most cars (all?) there’s still an off position, so even that’s no guarantee.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        That Toyota design is just plain dangerous, far and away the most common vehicles to see driving on the DRLs even though it is totally dark out are Toyotas of the vintage that have some version of the always illuminated instrument cluster.

        All the cars I’ve had and seen with auto lamps do have an off position. So yeah no guarantee that it would be used. My Mother in law borrowed our car with auto lamps and it freaked her out. My wife told her she didn’t need to think about them as they were automatic but she kept freaking out afraid that they wouldn’t go out, had to call my wife several times ect. It’s not like she hadn’t driven some of our other vehicles with Autolamps. When we got our first vehicle with them it took a couple of years before she finally stopped telling us we left the lights on and me or my wife telling her it is fine, they are automatic.

        So when she just purchased a 2017 Ford Mustang base that had them I thought we would be in for a fight in getting her to leave the switch in the auto position and turn on the auto high beams but it wasn’t.

    • 0 avatar
      JREwing

      GM also had it on the Cobalt, and it worked brilliantly.

      Honestly, I can’t fathom why anyone would design auto headlights that didn’t include the taillights at the same time. It’s insane how often I see people driving around with the auto-headlights on in the dark – obvious because of the missing taillights.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        My 1999 Malibu “Classic” has them too. That was not a fancy car. Pretty simple electronics needed to do this.

        Why can I buy a rocking pair of bluetooth headphones for $30 but a simple auto on/off feature on a car is expensive?

  • avatar
    Boxerman

    Saw the same thing last night, and its getting more frequent.. DRL’s throw off enough light that people dont realize they have not turned on their headlights especialy on a reasonably lit road. The danger of course is the rear of the car has no lights on at all.

    Pretty much most modern cars have an auto headlight on feature. My 11 equinox does and thats a fairly base car. So either people are now so dependant on automation they are too lame to think to turn on headlights, or don’t know how to activate the auto on feature.

    In the old days not turning on the lights was fairly obvious, you couldn’t see and or other drivers honked at you. these days DRls propbably put out as much power as a regular 1975 headlight.

    Its a sign that as cars get easier and have more auto feautures drivers just pay less attention. I wouldnt be surprised if the jump in roadside fatalities is not only texting related but also general inattention driven by dependancy on nannies. Many drivers today seem to need blind spot warnign and various beeps and buzzes to remind them to stay on the road and not go into other lanes. They probably becomes depedant on being told by the car something is happening that when they are not warned a crash can ensue. In otehr words the safety systems may be contributing indirectly to more accidents.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Many modern cars don’t have automatic headlights. Toyota for example is stuck in the dark ages and does not offer it on many cars, let alone make it standard like many GM and Ford products. The problem is that they insist on then having DRLs and a dash that is always lit when the ignition is on. Next time you see it I bet it is a late model Toyota.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Headlights should be ON 24/7 if you ask me, but even if drivers might want ultimate control, all cars/truck should know when it’s dark out, letting the driver know they’re running blacked out. Honda/Acura wtf???

    When loaded hard or towing heavy at night, My F-150’s headlights (stock halogens) will blind oncoming traffic so I’ll drive with just the parking lights and fog lights ON, in well-lit urban areas. Cops don’t mind either.

    But there should be some shaming of cars/trucks that still let their drivers leave their headlights ON, and kill the battery. I still see that happening a lot to newer cars/trucks.

    • 0 avatar
      benders

      Several years ago, there was an ongoing debate on if the US should mandate DRLs. IIRC, most analyses came to the conclusion that the incremental fuel cost for every vehicle wasn’t worth the projected number of lives saved.

      • 0 avatar
        JimZ

        then LEDs arrived.

      • 0 avatar
        ttacgreg

        It is my understanding that there is scant evidence DRLs in fact enhance safety. After experiencing the concept in Canada shortly after they were mandated there full on in the early 90’s, coming back to the USA where all lights were off, I have to say that to my eyes anyway, I could discern more visual details, especially in the distance without the glare that headlights create, and I found that my eyes were not having to adjust to the starker contrasts in the visual field in the absence of the artificial glare.

        I do have printed copy of an NHTSA study immediately after DRLs started to appear on US models. The Chevy Suburban with DRLs in that one year’s statistics, had a 2% higher accident rate than the older model without them.

        Personally I think the whole DRL thing is a faith based ideology. If you need headlights blasting your eyes in bright daylight to see other vehicles, then it is time to turn in your driver’s license.

        • 0 avatar

          Part of the DRL debacle is that GM, when they pushed them as a Saturn safety feature, was cheap. They ran the high beams in series (cheap to do with a switch) but forgot that most cars run 13.8-15 volts, and the DRL high beams were a bit too bright. Other companies did it correctly, but the real problem is that they removed the unique DRL for motorcycles, which was a legit safety feature.

          I’ve pulled the DRL from every car I’ve owned. I will use the running lights and / or fogs during the day, but the DRL are useless….

        • 0 avatar
          WheelMcCoy

          I found DRLs useful in residential areas, parking lots, and low speed environments. Cars are very quiet nowadays, and I found I would surprise pedestrians when driving cars without DRLs. So unaware of their surroundings, they think I’m parked or something. With the DRL lights on, they know the car is alive, and that turns the light on in their head, in a manner of speaking.

        • 0 avatar

          Everyone has their own opinion, but I don’t really understand how you see DRLs as ‘blasting your eyes.’ Be they halogens or LEDs, they aren’t disruptive to the eyes and are quick and easy notifiers that a car or motorcycle is present and moving. We’ve had them for years in Canada, and after spending time in the UK I couldn’t understand why they didn’t have them too. Sure, the cars are still visible, but they are easier to miss at a glance in the daylight without DRLs. Given that humans are so prone to error, I think a system that reduces that error is worthwhile.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      The problem noted is all those cars that have their headlights on when ever the car is running, IE DRLs. So the person can see some illumination and when combined with an always illuminated instrument cluster they don’t have a clue that the rest of the lights are not on. Toyota is far and away the worst for that.

    • 0 avatar
      DrSandman

      You folks in Denver and Minnesoda [sic] and Maine and Seattle and other places with weather issues leave ’em on.

      In TX, AZ, FL, NM, NC, SC, etc., DRLs cause terrible glare during daylight hours, and I have to wear sunglasses 100% of the time.

      State by state is good. No need for the Federal BanHammer.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      My 2014 MDX has auto lights. What are you talking about DenverMike? Also has auto lights with auto wipers. And DRLs.

      Frankly I’d like to see DRLs go away except for motorcycles and scooters. Auto everything else. Drove to work the other day in heavy fog which is unusual for my area. Amazing how many people didn’t turn on their lights. My 18 year old Chevy turned them on automatically though.

  • avatar
    jh26036

    I think GM’s headlight control switch has it right when it comes to this issue. Setting always default to auto, can be forced off but can never stay in that position. Can also be forced on and yell at you when you leave the car. I want to say, even if you leave it forced on, the car eventually will turn its lights off after so long.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    Yep, it’s caused by two things- the dash lights are on all the time in modern cars so the driver doesn’t get that cue anymore, and the other reason is inattentive drivers. For the latter reason, sometimes it’s an honest mistake and other times it’s a dimwit behind the wheel. And I wish our law enforcement people would cite them or even charge them a stupidity tax to encourage them to be smarter.

    As for me, when an oncoming car has forgotten its lights, if it is very dark out then I will give them a long blast of my high beams. Then when I see them in my mirror, careening out of control and ending in a fireball, I laugh maniacally and continue about my business. Mwuahahaha!!!

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Drives me crazy when people don’t have their lights on when needed. I’m not sure when that started to irritate me so much. It bothers me even more than people with their high beams on all the time.

    For whatever reason, Prius drivers always seem to be the last people willing to turn on their lights. And inevitably people without their lights on in the dark have gray or black cars.

    I also rarely see people trying to alert other drivers that their lights aren’t on. I do it a lot, but I’m also pretty sure someone I was trying to alert was convinced I was trying to murder them since I kept turning my lights on and off behind them and then when that didn’t work I got in front and did the same thing.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      I noticed this happening a lot when the 2002 Accord landed. The permanently lit electroluminescent gauges were not common then and a lot of people reflexively thought their headlights were on. Fifteen years later, I still see these Accords running dark.

      I’ve had poor success flashing high beams at these drivers. If they’re detached enough to not notice their lights are off, they either won’t notice your signalling or won’t have a clue about your intentions.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        The high beam thing is probably exacerbated by those drivers having their dash lights turned up full bright.

        It comes back to not paying attention, or simply being too dimwitted (pun intended) to realize that the bright instruments make it a lot harder to see outside. Then they have to compensate for that by “needing” their high beams more often, and finally the bright instrument lights drown out the blue high beam reminder on their dashboard. Normally that blue thing should be pretty obvious because it’s brighter than the gauges.

      • 0 avatar
        roverv8i

        Yes, my 2005 Acura TL caused me to do this until I got used to it. I trained myself to look for the lights on indicator on the dash. Also, in the case of this car the dashboard lights are very bright in daylight mode. So eventually you realize the issue for the opposite reason of not seeing the gauges. They are instead blinding you.

    • 0 avatar
      Ol Shel

      How about when, no matter what you do to signal them, they don’t figure it out?

      It’s psychology: they think that their lights are already on. They’re not going to wonder if they’re on or off because they already “know”.

      It’s only when they question if their lights are on that they will investigate.

  • avatar
    Highway27

    Sajeev’s answer misses the mark: This is happening in cars that already HAVE an ambient light sensor to make their auto-headlights work. The problem is that there’s no indication in these vehicles besides the headlight switch that it’s OFF-ON-Auto. So when the mechanics turn your lights off, you don’t realize it.

    What I think might help would be to use the ambient light sensor, and if it gets to a point where the lights would come on, but the driver hasn’t turned them on, then illuminate a message on the dash. If you want to drive around with your lights off, then you’d have to look at it. If you want the lights off because you’re inside a garage or something, you don’t care about the message. But if you’re driving and don’t know that the switch is off, then it would tell you.

    Another thing that bugs me about this is that at least on my Accord, the ‘default’ position of the lights is “OFF”, not Auto, based on which position is conforming to the rest of the stalk. Make Auto the default! Make it a volitional choice to turn the lights to “Off”, each time you start the car.

    • 0 avatar

      Except not all cars have ambient light sensors, and they won’t even in 2018 when the backup camera is mandatory.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        They could pull ambient light data from the backup camera. Too lazy to do it though.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          There is not ambient light data from the back up camera and even if there was it would be useless as the lights from the car behind you would trick the camera to thinking it wasn’t dark. The other big problem is that the camera is only on when the car is in reverse. Most are connected to the back up light wiring and just send a video signal once they are turned on. They adjust for ambient light but just send the video signal. at the other end the display just monitors that input and switches to it when it receives a signal. Way to expensive to implement a function to use that instead of putting a $.04 light sensor, a $.06 holder in the dash and the $.57 worth of wire and connector.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    “In reality, a dedicated ambient light sensor is likely necessary, which is another cost to pass down to the consumer’s wallet.”

    Most or maybe all new cars sold in North America in 2017 have a trim level that includes automatic headlights. The development is already done and the light sensor has a trivial cost associated with it. The cost could be offset a little if all models now share the same light switch, light sensor, etc.

    My point is, if auto-headlights become mandatory, that cost is probably much smaller compared to, say, a mandatory reverse camera or mandatory emergency braking.

    From the functional side, the solution should include:

    -A switch that defaults to the Auto position. The only other position is Off. Maybe it is not a traditional multi-position switch, but a button instead. Kind of like the Sport button that defaults to “off” each time the car is started.
    -There must be a sensitivity adjustment. I have driven a couple of cars where the Auto lights turn on at a very low light level. Too dark for my comfort.
    -The response to sudden changes in light should be standardized. Driving through long underpasses or short tunnels should trigger the lights on. My perception is, only luxury cars have this kind of response time.

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      Yes, the fact that the headlight switch on my new CR-V doesn’t have Auto as the “normal” position drives me nuts; no idea what Honda was thinking when they made that design decision.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      “My point is, if auto-headlights become mandatory, that cost is probably much smaller compared to, say, a mandatory reverse camera or mandatory emergency braking.”

      Yes! Of all the gadgets and schemes our bureaucratic overlords have concocted, it seems that even a reminder light would be low hanging fruit.

    • 0 avatar
      thelastdriver

      My ’98 Corolla “Value Edition” doesn’t have a clock but it has an ambient light sensor.

      When did this stop being a thing?

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      > The only other position is Off

      wholeheartedly disagree with this part. You should also have an “ON” function that ignores the light sensor.

      We have several areas in our state where headlight use is mandatory (certain bridges and 2-lane highways), and a law that you have to have them on with wipers, and cloud cover is not enough to trip the light sensor during the day.

      We also have the idiotic habit of people here that they put on their hazards when driving in heavy rain, which I don’t understand. I lived in South Florida for years, and we did just fine in more frequent heavy rains down there without hazards confusing the drivers behind you.

    • 0 avatar
      jpolicke

      Not buying the “additional cost” argument. Someone made a profit selling me one Sony backup camera for $9. What would the per unit cost be for a pallet load straight from the manufacturer?

      The protests are most likely triggered by the fact that the OEMs will no longer be able to take the feature and bundle it into an overpriced luxury or safety package.

      • 0 avatar
        LeMansteve

        If it’s the same grade/spec of camera used by the OEMs, I’m surprised they cost that little.

        OEMs could sell different grades of reverse cameras. The basic “federal regulation grade” camera and one with dynamic guidelines, multiple angles, night vision, etc.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    At least cars with DRLs have *something* on all the time. There are still a plenty of examples out there with permanently-lit dash gauges and no DRLs. When idiots get behind the wheel of those at dusk, they’re invisible.

    While we’re at it, can we find a solution for old folks who drive around town with their brights on?

  • avatar
    sirwired

    I think a simple compromise between “every car must have these” and “manufacturers can do whatever” would be “If the car has an always-lit dash, an ambient light sensor is mandatory. Any forced-off switch must reset back to auto when the car is started the next time.”

    But really, I don’t buy the “cost” excuse; it’s neither an expensive nor complicated part.

  • avatar
    EspritdeFacelVega

    DRLs have been mandatory in Canada since 1990. Some importers adapted by simply having the full lighting system on all the time, as was the case with my 2003 Jaguar. Apart from having to replace bulbs slightly more frequently I actually came to like this – I kept the car 10 years and really got used to it. But the combo of DRLs and always-on dashboard lights has definitely created a laziness problem as I see cars w/out lights on all the time. Most cars have a little green or yellow dash indicator to show the full lighting system is in fact on, and I suspect most drivers have no idea what the icon means.

  • avatar
    thelastdriver

    Even my crappy ’98 Corolla has a light sensor to automatically switch on rear and corner lamps.

    Whenever I roll under a large bridge (5+ seconds) I hear a relay click and everything lights up.

    Toyota figured it out 20 years ago so I’m not sure why this is an issue.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      My Leaf even turns on the lights when the wipers are activated. Another simple thing.

      • 0 avatar
        roverv8i

        My 2002 Grand Cherokee turns the lights on with the wipers. This does require you to go into the driver info menu and set it to one to activate the function so I bet a lot of people never have a clue that they can do this.

    • 0 avatar
      thelastdriver

      And just to clarify: This is a rusty $350 shitbox that has automatic lights.

    • 0 avatar
      roverv8i

      My 2002 Grand Cherokee did not have auto lights but I had the factory fog lights installed as part of the deal. Turns out this requires a change of the stalk to add the fog light switch which included the auto light feature. Makes me wonder if the sensor was already installed on all of them or if they added it during the upgrade. It’s like my 2002 Boxster that did not have the upgraded trip computer. All of the needed bits are in the display. Sensors such as the outside temperature are already installed. If you upgrade to this feature all they do is install the control stalk and activate the function on the computer.

    • 0 avatar
      ttacgreg

      And my 2000 Corolla would switch to the night system when the sun was still 20+ degrees above the horizon. One little yellow wire deep in the dash cured that. Now I can actually have my headlights off if and when I want to. What a concept!

    • 0 avatar
      supadoopa2

      “Toyota figured it out 20 years ago”

      And yet it seems to be mostly Toyota models that don’t have them today.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    This is something that absolutely drives me nuts.

    Drivers who either refuse or inadvertently don’t turn their lights on at dusk are a real hazard to others, especially a dark-colored car in a shaded area that is within a pack of cars, and you think you are seeing a vacant space in oncoming traffic and find out it’s a car with no lights on.

    I’m thankful that since 2004, I have never had to touch my light switch on my cars because of having auto-on lights. Wifey’s 2015 CR-V now has them, too.

    To me, if you deliberately switch off the auto-on feature if so equipped, I’m thinking (1) you are a criminal about to commit some sort of crime, (2) An obnoxious, arrogant person who thinks he or she is better than anyone else, and no OEM tells me when my lights should come on, or (3) someone who left home or work when it was lighter out and simply forgot to turn on lights if no auto-on feature is present, or simply had it switched off for some reason.

    BTW, all these fancy “eye lash” and necklace-style lighting accents get me, not sure if this is a good idea or not. Some look good, others, not so much.

    • 0 avatar
      Menloguy

      I see people driving rental cars with only DRL’s on quite a lot. With a myriad of unfamiliar light settings established by different makers, it’s easy to forget to turn on the lights when you’re headed to Applebee’s with your coworkers.

    • 0 avatar
      Wunsch

      The one situation I’ve had to be careful with is after taking a car in for service. The techs often turn the automatic lights off so they’re not triggered when driving into the shop, and don’t turn them back on when they’re done. Since I always leave my lights in auto, it took a little while before I realized I always need to check that when getting the car back.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    It can’t cost that much to add the sensor. GM has had automatic headlights in their vehicles for what, close to 20 years now, even crap box ones.

    If anything, my gritch with GM vehicles is that in a number of cars it is too easily defeated.

    I dated a girl once who had a Nissan Altima and purposely deactivated the automatic headlights in it because, “she didn’t trust the system.”

    What ever the Hell that was suppose to mean.

    • 0 avatar
      TeamInstinct

      My dad has done that same exact thing with all his truck’s, been doing it since he got his first Automatic headlight F-150, drives me crazy. He say’s the same thing too “you can’t trust the computer system to turn them on” but since he’s never actually tried it I don’t know how he would know that, lol.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Try 40 years, sure you couldn’t get it on a Chevy in the 70’s but you could on your Caddy.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      APaGttH – her distrust of the lighting sensor was your warning to get out of that relationship while you could. I dated one that couldn’t drive at a constant speed. Used the gas pedal as an on/off switch. No wonder the transmission and axles were worn out. And she couldn’t take a little constructive criticism. Was time to bail.

  • avatar
    xflowgolf

    A few others have mentioned this, but in my experience it’s primarily due to people inadvertently/accidentally having lights switched into the Off position when they’re otherwise always on “Auto”.

    In my wife’s Volvo, they’re always on the “Auto” position, but if a kid bumps it into Off or something, it’s not readily apparent while driving that anything has changed (backlit gauges, DRL’s throw some light, etc.)

    I think automatic lights are ironically creating this phenomenon by training people NOT to look at or think about the switch position when they get in the car. It’s assumed they are on, because it’s not something you ever have to do anymore. It sounds like some automakers are doing this right, allowing them to be overridden to OFF, but in a way that has to be reset every time you get in the vehicle (i.e. the default returns to auto/ON automatically).

    • 0 avatar
      Menloguy

      I don’t know if Volvo’s have them, but my Honda has a green “headlight on” icon in the gauge cluster when the headlights are switched on. The icon is made up of two small headlight beams facing in opposite directions to indicate that the headlights are on since the car has an electro-lumninescent gauge cluster that is illuminated at all times making it hard to determine if the headlights are on or not.

  • avatar
    ajla

    For daily driving, I turned the auto headlights off on my Charger because I kept having to fiddle with the uConnect brightness as they went on and off.

    • 0 avatar
      roverv8i

      My 2005 Acura TL has a button marked MAX. It is above the dash light dimmer and easily accessible. This is a great feature that would help with your issue as you can force the dash lights to their daytime brightness setting. This includes the radio and other screens.

      I’ve noticed that Chrysler products took a step back in certain little features when they switched to all the more modern control systems. My 2002 GC will turn the lights on with the wipers. You can also easily set the dash lights to max brightness with a control on the light stalk. It does not run the dash lights in the daytime but you have the same annoying problem when you have the auto lights on with the radio and other displays. I mention this because this control is a flick of the fingers on the stalk vs. finding the control somewhere not easily accessed on the dashboard. My GC is a base model also. I drove a rental GC last year and felt like I had lost some of the well thought out features because they had changed from an inhouse design to one more dictated by the parts supplyer of the control systems.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        There is a roller toggle that let’s me set uConnect to max brightness but I don’t​ really use max brightness even with my headlights off and it ends up being more of a hassle (especially if I have to dive into uConnect sub menus) than just turning the headlight switch when I need too.

        What I’d really like is a way to divorce the screen from headlight function.

        My headlights do turn on if the wipers are on. It is an option in the uConnect settings on my car.

  • avatar
    2drsedanman

    On a side note, I wonder how many people would not have purchased their car if they did a test drive at night and the lights were not adequate? My Sienna has the best lights of any vehicle I have ever owned. But we had an Altima whose lights absolutely sucked. The first time I drove it at night, I thought one of the lights were blown out. I couldn’t believe a newer car (2013) had lights that poor.

    • 0 avatar
      duffman13

      Our Mazda3 has terrible lighting as well. Had I known it was as bad as it was with the halogens, it would have been enough to convince me to get a Grand Touring trim if only for the HIDs. The fact that it would have had dual zone climate and heated seats for an extra $2k would have been a welcome bonus.

      OTOH, my S2000 has the best lights I’ve ever used, followed closely by my wife’s Santa Fe. Good beam width, sharp cutoff, and excellent sight distance. Both are HIDs, but I’ve been in some vehicles with piss poor HID implementations too. Light source matters some, but properly engineered optics matter more.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff Weimer

      That’s been a common problem with various makes and models (90s Mopar) since the US stopped mandating sealed-beam headlights in the 80’s. Sure, they weren’t fantastic, but they were consistent – everyone had the same light pattern.

  • avatar
    cgjeep

    I hate people that drive with DRLs at night but I recemtly found myself one of them. I blame my new 4Runner. The default position is off. The next position is DRL on. So I’m driving and it starts to get dark so I move my headlights to next position. I see light in front of my car and my gauges are well lit so I think my lights are on. Wasn’t till a couple days later when I went to experiment with the fog lights that I noticed. So the switch goes off, drl, parking lights, then headlights. Why even give an option for DRL or not. Also fter reading owners manual I find that the headlights will turn off automaticly after 30 seconds or I hit lock button on fob. When I restart car they come back on. The gauges are lit so well that when I turn on headlights at dusk I can’t see my gauges, particulary the nav/stereo screen as they dim for night viewing.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    I think people getting dependent on their auto lights is a problem when combined with another feature… Dash illumination. I always find my dash lights are too bright at night so I dim them. In the day time, they are on full brightness. So if the dash lights are too bright, I must not have turned the headlights on. It seem to me that most people don’t know they can adjust the brightness of the dash lights.

    What I don’t get is if having your headlights on is so great, etc, why do some cars turn one headlight OFF (making the car less visible to oncoming traffic) when you put on the turn signal?

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      They turn one headlight off so that it doesn’t wash out the blinking turn signal. Maybe the turn signal shouldn’t be put so close to the headlight, but that’s why they do it. Best of all would be if the turn signal was brighter, then no need for gee-whiz computer turning off the headlight.

  • avatar
    haroldhill

    While they’re at it, can I have an automatic window that rolls down when it’s nice out and rolls up when traffic noise is too loud? Jeez, let me drive my car! If I can see the road and pedestrians dressed in flat black I don’t need headlights. If you have yours on, you will see my reflectors, which are cheap and have been mandatory for a couple of centuries. And they’re always on.

  • avatar
    silentsod

    I experience the opposite of this problem more often; people running their high beams during the morning, noon, and night!

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      I think this is on purpose, and they’re just inconsiderate. I was once in a car in China when I mentioned to the driver that her brights were on. Her response? “Yeah, I can see better that way.” Well… what about everyone you’re blinding?

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    My 2010 Toyota Highlander has DRLs but they run off of the low beam filament which makes the low beam burn out faster and irritating me. The fist year I owned the vehicle I went through at least two sets of headlights (I also put about 20000 miles on the vehicle.)

    Not wanting to be constantly replacing headlight bulbs I turned off the DRLs which unfortunately turns off the automatic headlight function. I compensate by being very conscientious about turning the headlights on when my wipers are on and when the sun dips low.

    I have noticed that the DRLs on my wife’s Terrain (headlight based non LED) turn off automatically when the vehicle is idling in park for an extended period of time. They come back on when the transmission is put in gear. I personally think that is a pretty neat trick. (Professional Grade?)

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      The Fords I have/had with DRL’s will only illuminate them if you are in gear, or the parking brake is released on the MT trans vehicle. But since I’m not a fan I have programed it out with a scan tool or removed the resistor which ever was needed on that particular vehicle.

  • avatar
    Dan

    Far and away the closest call that I’ve ever had on the road was when I pulled out from a stop to make a left turn, directly into the path of an oncoming Camry. Its driver was on point enough to swerve right on to the shoulder instead of driving directly into my driver’s side door and in all likelihood maiming me for life.

    Late afternoon, heavily wooded road, sun just below the trees, dark green car running with its lights off, I looked right at him and he never registered to me.

    I recognize full well the danger inherent to ever agreeing that “there should be a law” but, well, there should be a law. Paint your car with an albedo <0.4, your lights stay on.

  • avatar
    tonyd

    Here is the KISS formula. Do not put ANY switches or controls in the car. If the car is ON the regular beams are ON. If the sensor determines there is nobody around to blind with high beams turn them on (and off)!

    • 0 avatar
      TeamInstinct

      Ahh, the first part, like a motorcycles headlight isn’t a bad idea.

      I’m not sure I like the high beams always on idea though. There are times where it’s worse to have your high beams on then your low beams.

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    I had a 2004 mid-level Grand prix with auto lights. Worked quite well for the most part. My 2010 Mazda 6 only has auto off. The only way to get auto lights at the time, and I think is still the case with Mazda, is get the tech package or the Grand Touring models. I mean, it costs THAT much more just to get a daylight sensor and a little logic to turn them on?

  • avatar
    yankinwaoz

    Thank you! This has been a huge irritant of mine. I have written many letters to my federal and state representatives demanding that car makers fix this problem. I’ve also written to the US DOT. Yet I hear nothing back.

    Not a night goes by where I don’t see some idiot driving with out headlights turned on. How can the CHiP NOT be screaming at our idiots in Sacramento to fix this?

    The solution is simple. Either make the lights totally automatic. Or totally manual. This half way between crap isn’t working.

  • avatar
    Eddie_B

    Forget dusk… 10-20% of people drive with their lights completely off in heavy rain. I drive on two-lane roads and do a fair amount of passing… it’s a REAL problem. I’ve ‘aborted’ passes twice this week already due to some invisible dumbass (and the fact that I only have 230~ hp with a hesitant auto, not 460hp with a manual).

  • avatar
    TMA1

    My biggest lament is that no one seems to understand what flashing high beams means any more. Growing up, if I see someone coming towards me with no lights, a quick flash gets their attention and they turn their headlights on. But that never happens anymore. People just ignore it, or don’t know what it means, and drive on in darkness. I think it’s a lack of any decent driver training, as well as newcomers who aren’t familiar with US car culture.

  • avatar
    SC5door

    I see this issue all the time in the Chicago metro area on a lot of rental cars, CRV’s and the latest Dodge Charger where they’ll drive down the road with the LED strips on the headlight activated.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    This is exactly why the DRLs implemented on many vehicles are a hazard and not a safety item. I think that if the vehicle has DRLs and an always lit instrument cluster then automatic lights that default to the auto setting should be required.

  • avatar
    Eddie_B

    I have another question. My post-LCI E90 has DRLs which are the stupid looking low beams in low intensity. Despite halogens this car does have ‘angel eyes’ – any way I can get the DRLs to look like the photo on this article? Or are those xenon-only? Maybe they’re parking lights instead of DRL.

  • avatar
    turf3

    Why not just have the default setting “no instrument panel lights unless the headlights are on”? Seems a heck of a lot simpler, plus it’s consistent with the way most cars have been since they started lighting the instrument panels, until the latest round of silliness in user interface design (say the last 20 years).

    I never have trouble remembering to turn my lights on when it’s dark. I expect that’s because I learned how to drive when the only way to have headlights was to turn them on yourself. Spend 30 years driving in cars that you have to manually turn on the lights when it gets dark, and you will not forget to turn on the lights when it’s dark. Another reason why automobile user interfaces need to be standardized.

  • avatar
    turf3

    It’s like the people designing these systems never heard of the human iris contracting in response to bright lights.

    If you design taillights so bright you practically have to wear sunglasses, then you will design headlights so bright you need to wear welding goggles, and when your irises are contracted down to heroin-addict tininess, then you have to have the instrument panel lights so bright you could read the classifieds by them, and a never-ending cycle of brightness and glare ensues. If you can’t see the street signs, traffic lights, etc., in all the glare from the cars, make them brighter too. Of course, now no one can see a flippin’ thing, but the cure for that is clear: MORE LUMENS!!! And then it rains, so all the zillion-candlepower lights on everything are now reflecting off the road surface too.

    Need to take all these idiot designers out in the woods and show them that the best way to walk in the woods at night is WITHOUT your G.D. flashlight.

    I tell you, I never had any damn trouble seeing where I was going in a car with sealed beam headlights, because everything else was correspondingly less lit up, so the actual visibility of contrasting things was actually better than today.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Its an arm’s race just like between the USSR and USA back when.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      Hear, hear. The way LED lights are being used in the city is almost making me think this is part of some conspiracy to prevent anyone from going outside after dark.

      The (legal, OEM) lights on modern vehicles are actually quite pleasant compared to many of those.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    What’s worse is people driving around with the rear high beam on (it’s a high beam, not a fog light, look at the picture on the button). Many complain about fog lights as well, but I don’t find them to a be a problem.

  • avatar
    tommytipover

    I have a Pontiac Vibe, (I assume the NUMMI Corolla and Matrix are the same) where there is no real OFF position. When the switch is off DRL is the default until the sensor decides (usually a little early but better safe than sorry) to turn on the headlights. The only way to run no headlights is to start the car with the park brake on but you get DRL or headlight as soon as it is released. I’ve read in forums where people defeat this (they HAVE to be in control) but it seems almost ideal and idiot-proof. My favorite is the old SAAB setup. HL switch on, lights on as long as the IGN is on. IGN off, lights off, no dead battery. Heck, in the winter, I’d never turn the HL switch off.

  • avatar
    redliner

    The solution to this problem is simple. Vehicles equipped with always illuminated gauges should incorporate a light sensor that turns the gauge backlighting off at dusk if the headlights are off. When the driver looks down and wonders why the gauge cluster is dark, they will naturally check the headlight switch.

  • avatar
    Chan

    Ridiculously simple fix.

    Always-on gauge lights mean auto headlamps. Bundle those requirements together.

    Non-lit daytime gauges get an exemption.

    Easy.

    • 0 avatar
      dw931

      Thank you!! This is not rocket science! The NHTSA should just mandate that if the DRL’s are on, the dash lights cannot be illuminated. I bet that fixed the problem 95% of the time, and is also less energy consumption, by definition if the DRL’s are on, the dashlights don’t need to be on. It is infuriating all the gov regularion we don’t need. This is one case I can get behind them actually doing something to save lives…

  • avatar
    Ermel

    In my opinion, DRLs that don’t include taillights have been the bad idea that set off all this stupidity. Even using incandescents, those couple of watts shouldn’t have mattered, ever.

    Considering always-on dash illumination, my 26-year-old lowly Citroen BX shows how it’s done, with three clearly distinct indicator lights in the dash for parking lights, dipped headlights, and high beams respectively. No ambiguity there. (Admittedly, fog lights and fog taillights have been added as an afterthought, so their indicator lights are elsewhere and more easily overlooked. Gotta fix that someday.)

  • avatar
    s_a_p

    The latest problem I’ve noticed is auto high beam out of proper adjustment issues and or horribly misaligned headlights and or people not caring that they are shining their laser led Uber bright++ headlights in my retina. I both can’t wait for and fear a truly smart car that will eliminate problems like this.

  • avatar
    v8fairy

    Yes, so much – this is something that really irritates me too. People here driving in heavy rain or low light or both with no lights. So dangerous as they are so hard to see at a glance.

    I run my 2001 model daily driver with headlights on all the time, they turn off automatically as soon as I get out of the car once I have removed keys from ignition. My classic has a light buzzer that goes off if I open the drivers door with the lights still on – that from 1980.

    There is no reason cars produced today could not have lights on all the time, set to turn off when ignition off or similar, perfectly doable.

  • avatar

    I know this topic is pretty much dead but I must throw in my two pennies.

    I drove shuttle for an Audi/Porsche dealer from 2007 to 2009 and their shuttle rig was a Q7 3.6 with the Premium package. It had the always-on electroluminescent gauges and AUTO lights and I kept them in that position but the morning driver always turned them to off, much to my consternation. One day I presumed they were on auto and entered a relatively long tunnel. About halfway through, the gauge pod slowly faded to off, summoning me to check the headlight switch.

    This is by far the best solution and can be incorporated with existing light sensors. It’s so simple I don’t know why nobody else has thought of it. Heck, I don’t even know if Audi still uses it today.


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