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Helpful tips for safer driving after dark

As Kiwis, we kinda love our cars – big ones, little ones, fast ones and even slow ones. But while they give us the freedom of the road, they also expose us to many risks – especially after the sun goes down. And with an ever-increasing population, there are more vehicles driving at night than ever.

Driving safely after dark requires extra skills, so here are some helpful tips to assist you during your night-time travels.

Give yourself a clear view

Being exposed to the elements as it is, the windscreen can collect a range of dirt, dust, bird droppings and insects. This is the last thing you need smeared across your vision path when you’re trying to navigate your way through the darkness. The inside of the glass can get pretty grimy too, creating a hazy film and poor visibility, plus it accentuates headlight glare from oncoming cars.

If you know you’re going to be heading out at night, take five minutes to check the windscreen washing spray is topped up with water and cleaning additive, and give the inside a good clean with glass cleaner (ideally with a microfiber cloth).

During cold or humid weather the windscreen can fog up. If your car has air conditioning, you can use the demist function to quickly clear the glass. Make a mental note of where that button is on the dashboard before you start your journey, so you’re not distracted trying to find it while you’re driving.

Prepare for glare

You’re inevitably going to come across headlight glare from oncoming cars, causing temporary impaired vision. This can be unnerving and cause you to ease off the speed, but don’t panic and stomp on the brakes suddenly - there could be someone behind you experiencing the same glare and this could cause them to run into the back of you. If you’re in this situation, avert your gaze to the white line that runs along the left side of the road - that will guide you until the other car has passed. If there’s no white line, there are often ‘cats eyes’ or posts with reflective strips. You can also use this tip for fog driving.

Sometimes the person in the car behind you can forget to adjust their full beam headlights, which is no fun for you. Simply flick the switch or tab at the bottom of your rear view mirror – this dims the brightness enough for you to drive safely.

Headlight 101

Now you know how to deal with other driver’s headlights, you need to make sure you’re operating your own correctly. It’s good practice to routinely check all of your lights are functioning, because a bulb can blow at any time - fortunately they are often easy and economical to replace.

There will be times where you’ll need to use the full beam of your headlights, such as rural or low-lit roads. When you’re using full beam, be considerate and remember to dip your lights when you see approaching traffic. You also need to dip your lights when you’re following someone, so that you don’t dazzle them.

The New Zealand Road Code states you must turn on your vehicle's headlights:

  • 30 minutes after sunset on one day, until 30 minutes before sunrise on the next day
  • At any other time when you can't clearly see a person or vehicle 100 metres away

Be aware of after dark antics

Unfortunately, not every driver acts responsibly. At night it’s more common to encounter road users who have been partying with either drugs or alcohol. Be prepared to keep your distance if you find yourself sharing the road with a driver displaying erratic behaviour. You also need to be wary of intoxicated or distracted pedestrians, particularly at closing time around pubs and clubs.

Another tip is to keep a watchful eye for cyclists at night. Even though bikes have to use compulsory reflectors and lights, they can still be difficult to see and it’s hard judge the direction they’re going. Look twice for bikes.

Fight the urge to swerve

It’s not only people that could cross your path at night. On occasion you may come across a cat, a meandering hedgehog, stray sheep or possum looking stunned in your headlights. When this happens, you have to put yourself and your passenger’s safety first – don’t swerve to avoid these unlucky animals because you could lose control of the vehicle, steer into an oncoming vehicle or drive off the road. If you spot an animal in the distance and have enough time to safely slow down, do so - just be mindful of any vehicles behind you.

Avoid drowsy driving

Driver fatigue can affect anyone, and unfortunately many crashes are caused by people driving when they're tired. If you’re finding it hard to concentrate on the road and your surroundings, feeling sleepy or notice yourself daydreaming, find a safe spot to pull over as soon as you can. Avoid being a risk to yourself or others by having a 15-20 minute power nap or asking a passenger to drive.

Keep time on your side

Nobody likes running late, so there’s always the temptation to put your foot on the gas. Not a good idea, especially at night. If you’re driving to be somewhere at a certain time, it’s a good idea to leave a little bit earlier to have a buffer in case you’re held up or need to refuel. Driving while anxious and stressed can impair your focus and cause you to make hasty decisions with adverse results.

Be prepared for a roadside rescue

At some stage, you may find yourself in the undesirable position of requiring assistance or having to execute a roadside remedy. Whatever it may be - the dreaded flat tyre, mechanical issue or even run out of fuel - try to find a safe spot to pull over and turn on your hazard lights while you work or wait for help. It’s a good idea to keep a torch (or headlamp) in your car for emergencies such as these. Regularly having your vehicle serviced can also reduce the chance of things going wrong. Think preventative maintenance.

Driving at night doesn’t have to be a nerve-racking experience. By applying these recommendations, you’ll feel calmer and more comfortable on the road at night.

Remember: plan ahead, be observant, be considerate, don’t panic and take breaks.

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