I'll leave my lights on for you

Voices of the Clarion

Posted: Sunday, January 13, 2008

Although it is something many of us do every day and think little about, driving in Alaska during the winter is tough. No further proof is needed than the news footage that is invariably shown when a rare snowstorm hits the South and cars pile up in the ditches.

Alaskans do a good job of adapting to driving in winter conditions, but there is one adaptation that some Alaskans do not make driving with headlights on at all times.

According to the State of Alaska "Driver Manual," Alaska law requires that headlights must be turned on from a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise. The manual also has safety suggestions for the use of headlights: "Turn on headlights at dusk and in daytime when visibility is poor to make sure that the other driver sees you."

I personally drive with my headlights on at all times, winter or summer. It is always easier to see a car with headlights on.

In the summer, when visibility is generally good, driving without headlights rarely gets on my nerves. In winter, those driving without headlights bother me on a daily basis.

Take Thanksgiving weekend, when I was driving through Turnagain Pass in a snowstorm, and not one, but two white cars passed me without their headlights on. I would have been willing to slow down and let them pass easier if I had known they were behind me.

Last Saturday I was driving to Homer in another snowstorm and was amazed at how many vehicles did not have headlights on. The drive to Homer is all two-lane highways with winding, hilly roads and limited passing possibilities. Why not make yourself as visible as possible to a car in an oncoming lane thinking about a pass?

Visibility is further compromised during snowstorms or their sometimes slushy aftermath by the dirtiness of windshields. I can clean my windshields before I drive, but within a couple blocks have severely diminished visibility due to snow and dirt, especially through side and rear windows. At this point, it's easy to see a headlights-on car in my blind spot when making a lane change, but extremely difficult to see a headlights-off car in the same position.

Even on perfectly sunny days in the winter when there is not a drop of snow on the road, visibility is an issue. The angle of the sun is so low in the sky that headlights-off cars driving through a city street walled by buildings or a highway walled by tall trees can be hard to pick up due to the shadows. Things like snowbanks piled high on the side of the road also can cause visibility problems on any winter day.

In winter, it also is more urgent to be visible due to traction. In summer, when the roads are good, it's possible to pop back into your lane if you begin a pass on a two-lane highway and see an oncoming car. In winter, this is a dicey proposition.

The same can be said about city driving. In the summer, if I don't see a car in my blind spot and cut that car off, that car can slam on the brakes. In winter, the car has a much better chance of sliding into me.

There are downsides to driving with headlights on at all times. Headlights burn out faster, but headlights are easy and cheap to replace. There's also a better chance of leaving headlights on and needing a jump later, but cars practically scream at drivers leaving their headlights on when the door is opened, and some cars with even turn headlights off for the driver.

Regardless, the occasional jump or headlight replacement is preferable to an auto accident.

I also realize that as a driver, it is my responsibility to make proper lane changes and passes every time whether other cars on the road are immediately visible or not. I take that responsibility very seriously, and have been labeled by many an overly cautious driver. Some may say it's not their problem if other drivers are too blind to see them, or don't clean their windshield enough. The problem is, if they are injured in an auto accident, it is their problem.

For those who drive with headlights on, I'll see you on the road. For those who drive without headlights, I'll do my best to see you on the road.

Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak can be reached at jeff.helminiak@peninsulaclarion.com.

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