SEEING THE LIGHT

By Audrey Fraizer

If there isn’t adequate space on the highway between your car and the next to avoid an accident by applying the brakes, it could be you’re driving too fast or you simply lack what it takes to navigate anything other than local roads.

Or, it might be because your attention is elsewhere.

In most cases, it isn’t because the sun is in your eyes and, in fact, most times it’s because the lighting isn’t in your favor. Night driving is the worst in terms of traffic fatalities, and that’s particularly true for pedestrians.

According to a Federal Highway Administration study, the probability of being killed in a crash during late-night/early-morning hours is as much as three times greater than during the day.

Things haven’t changed much since the early days of motoring.

In 1934, 20,000 of the 36,000 motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. occurred at night, despite traffic being three times heavier during the daylight hours. Pedestrians accounted for 69 percent of the deaths in the dark because drivers were going too fast and had too slow of a reaction time.1

Former New Jersey Gov. Harold G. Hoffman attributed “death at night” to an inability of a majority behind the wheel to “physically and emotionally” drive their vehicles at 60 miles an hour, let alone his suggested speeds of no greater than 35 miles per hour at night. Speed was power.2

Hoffman commanded the pulpit he was speaking from. Prior to serving as governor, his five years as traffic commissioner enabled a recitation of figures that could glaze the eyes of his listeners, but at the same time, supported public transportation for most people behind the wheel.

Braking was a big part of the problem, Hoffman insisted.

At 30 miles an hour, a car travels 44 feet a second. It takes a driver up to three-fourths of a second to react to an emergency and apply the brakes. During that time, the car has traveled 33 feet. At that speed, the braking distance is 40 feet. Add to that the 33 feet required for the driver’s mental and physical condition, and you have a total of 73 feet. If you’re going 60 mph, you’ll need 226 feet in which to stop in ideal conditions.3

But that wasn’t the only problem.

At night, braking distance carried little impact and that’s something Hoffman said could be alleviated by proper highway lighting, which was just starting to make the rounds to various cities in the 1930s. Pedestrians in particular, he said, were not safe from the motorized things that could go bump in the night.

“As a nation, we have failed to grasp the fact that as the sun goes down, so must our speed,” Hoffman said. “We are simply driving too fast for our eyes.”4

The principle of improving highways by better lighting at danger points was not a novel idea in the mid-1930s. In 1926, The American City magazine—advocate of city beautification projects that included illuminating business districts—explored the practicality of street lighting. The lamp could be held over the street rather than on top of a pole, in that way, enabling drivers to see farther and put a sheen on the pavement to case obstacles as silhouettes.5

In 1930, the Illuminating Engineering Society published a recommended street lighting code, classifying urban streets by traffic count, with progressively higher light levels as traffic increased.6

Although well received by municipalities, the money wasn’t there. The Great Depression hit and the urgency to light streets took its place far back in line. Many cities turned off the streetlights they did have.

Lighting manufacturers fought back, fighting on the fears of urban life. The International Association of Electricians warned that a reduction in services might turn out to be a net loss “resulting from increased accidents and crime.”7 Graybar Street Lighting published full-page magazine and newspaper ads suggesting that proper lighting could negate the need for auxiliary police:

“Their revealing glow drives lawbreakers away. They help prevent crime by lighting up the dark corners where crime breeds. Here’s a pertinent fact: in one city, crimes decreased 41 percent in those sections where better street lighting was installed. Good street lighting makes police work easier. With a well-lighted street, traffic speeds up, accidents decrease, business improves.”8

These efforts, combined with massive road building that followed World War II, brought lights to highways everywhere. American cities gradually took on a glow from the perception of safety. Ironically, light was being called on to speed up traffic at night and mitigate the decline in urban living brought on by the automobile that led to an exodus to the suburbs and the carving up of urban neighborhoods by automobile corridors.9

Did streetlighting accomplish what manufacturers said it would do? Does effective streetlighting deter criminal activity and improve traffic safety?

Regarding criminal activity, it appears that lighting has had a positive impact on crime (or negative impact on criminals). Good visibility is a key to crime prevention. The potential risk to offenders outweighs potential benefits.

A review of 13 studies of streetlighting interventions in the U.K. and U.S., spanning four decades, found that crime decreased by 21 percent in areas that received streetlighting improvements compared to similar areas that did not. The review also noted that streetlighting seemed more effective at reducing crime in the U.K. compared to the U.S.—a 38 percent reduction compared to 7 percent, respectively. However, the U.S. studies reported just nighttime crime, rather than both nighttime and daytime crime.10  

As far as traffic safety, the results are, again, positive. Increasing luminance levels of existing lighting systems, or providing overhead lighting where necessary, can reduce late-night/early-morning crashes at intersections.

The Lighting Research Center and The Pennsylvania State University, funded through a grant from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, found that fixed lighting reduces crash risk by about 30 percent. The statistic was based on a review of state-by-state traffic literature since only two states—Minnesota and California—had electronic databases amenable to the corollary search.

The downside is the driver and his or her inability to gauge conflicting traffic and other road uses. In fact, inadequate street lighting doesn’t even make it to the top three causes of road fatalities. Distracted driving, speeding, and drunk driving occupy these berths.11

Distracted driving continues to be the No. 1 leading cause of car accidents in America. Drivers who use a hand-held device are four times more likely to get into a car accident than drivers paying closer attention to the road ahead. Texting while driving increases the likelihood of an accident 23 times. 

Speeding contributes to about a third of all car accidents in America.

Over 1.41 million drivers were arrested in 2010 on suspicion of driving under the influence. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) estimates that 300,000 incidents of drunk driving occur daily.

Maybe the bigger problem is what Hoffman suggested nearly 80 years ago.

Few people are actually physically and emotionally equipped to drive. We simply like to go too fast for our eyes to see or, in the modern electronic age, prefer focusing our eyes on something else while behind the wheel. 

Sources

1Reducing Late-Night/Early Morning Intersection Crashes by Providing Lighting, Federal Highway Administration, FHWA-SA-09-017, accessed Jan. 7, 2014, http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/intersection/resources/casestudies/fhwasa09017/

2Death After Dark, Brownsville Times, Dec. 12, 1935, accessed Jan. 6, 2014 

3Motoring, The Townsville Daily Bulletin, Dec. 24, 1935, accessed Jan. 6, 2014

3Alfred Holden. Lighting the Night: Technology, Urban Life, and the Evolution of Street Lighting, accessed Jan. 7, 2014, http://places.designobserver.com/media/pdf/Lighting_the_N_734.pdf 

4An Authoritative Street Light Code, The American City, November 1930.

5Municipal Lighting Operators Point Out Folly of Street Lighting Cuts, The American City, October 1932, accessed Jan. 6, 2014

6See note 3.

7See note 3.

8Brandon C. Welsh, David P. Farrington. Street lighting can reduce crime, published Sept. 24, 2008; accessed Jan. 14, 2014, http://www.campbellcollaboration.org/news_/improved_street_lighting_redu…

9Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, published in 2007, accessed Jan. 14, 2014, http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/newsroom/pdf/2007/StreetLightingSafety8…

10See note 1.

11Michael Pines. Top Three Causes of Car Accidents in America, published Feb. 19, 2013, accessed Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.drivers.com/article/1173/

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