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Driving Concerns

Is it safe and legal to flash my high beams if a driver's lights aren't on? Add to ...

In the question from the driver who had a car following her in the fog with its high beams on, it’s possible that she didn’t have her lights on. This happens all the time with dashboards that are lit whether the headlights are on or not. I have tried on numerous occasions to signal to people that their lights are not on by turning mine on and off as a first step, and then a quick flash or two of the high beams if that doesn’t work. Usually, they do not understand and continue driving in the dark with their lights off, but on occasion it has worked. – Henry

It’s a bright idea to let another driver know he’s driving with his lights off – but a driving expert takes a dim view on using high beams to do it.

“What you have to be careful with flashing high beams is that it can dazzle or can take away someone’s attention – so it’s more dangerous,” said Angelo DiCicco, Young Drivers of Canada general manager. “You’re actually increasing the level of risk for the other vehicle you’re trying to help.”

At night, it’s generally against the law to flash high beams at nearby vehicles. For example, in Alberta, you must have high beams off if you’re within 300 metres of an approaching vehicle or if you’re following a vehicle that’s 150 metres or closer in front of you. It’s a $155 fine.

“If somebody is trying to warn another driver, we wouldn’t give them a ticket,” said Staff Sgt. Paul Stacey, with Calgary Police.

The rules vary. In Ontario, you can’t use brights if you’re less than 150 metres from an oncoming car or 60 metres behind someone. In Quebec, you can’t have brights on if you’re within 150 metres of any car – and it’s a $60-$100 fine.

And, since drivers flash high beams to signal all sorts of things – “Get out of my way,” “Your high beams are on, jerk,” “Buddy, slow down because there are cops ahead” – the message might not get received.

“I’ve flashed brights at people with lights off when I haven’t been working and people don’t know what you’re doing,” Stacey said. “I’ve never had anybody turn their headlights on because of that.”

Let the police handle it?

There are other options, like turning lights on and off, briefly turning on your four-way flashers or honking the horn. Good luck with those.

Unlike the days before DRL when your car would go dark when you had your lights off, a car in front of you may not notice that you’re switching your lights on and off.

While turning lights on and off is not as dangerous as flashing your brights, you’re briefly making yourself invisible from behind, DiCicco said.

The other signals? Chances are that drivers won’t know what you’re trying to tell them.

“Your likelihood at being understood is limited,” DiCicco said. “So you may be causing more frustration by trying to help than if you’d just left well enough alone and waited for the cops to pull them over and give them a ticket.”

Stacey said your best bet is to just be cautious. If police see them, they’ll get a ticket.

If you’re driving at night – or in the daytime if visibility is bad – you must have your headlights and taillights on.

The specifics vary – British Columbia says lights have to be on from a half-hour after sunset until a half-hour before sunrise. In Ontario, lights have to be on from a half-hour before sunset until a half-hour after sunrise. 

“That offence can come with an $81 fine,” said Sgt. Brian Montague, Vancouver police spokesman.

Others, like Alberta, just say lights have to be on at night.

“Also, if objects are not clearly discernible at least 150 metres ahead, you must turn on your lights – it’s a $78 fine,” Stacey said. “It’s common sense – if you’re in the middle of a blizzard, you have to have headlights on.”

Auto makers could fix

Transport Canada does not require taillights to come on with daytime running lights (DRL), but it has proposed new rules to change that.

The proposed rules will require new vehicles to have a dash that stays dark during the day. They will also require either automatic headlights that come on when light is low or rear tail lights that come on with DRL, said Daniel Savoie, Transport Canada spokesman, in an e-mail.

“The Department has received comments on its proposal and will soon prepare the final amendment to the lighting regulation,” Savioe said.

Both Stacey and DiCicco said the best idea is to get in the habit of driving with your headlights on all the time, even if you do have automatic headlights.

That’s so your tail lights will be on and you’ll be visible from behind in lousy weather. And, if you don’t have automatic lights, it’s so you won’t forget to turn lights on when it gets dark.

“Young Drivers of Canada is constantly telling people to get into this habit and it’s something that car makers could do for free with technology – it’s a programming thing,” DiCicco said. “People tell their kids not to do it because they leave the headlights on and kill the battery”

“But if you believe in being visible from the front, you should be visible from the rear as well because the majority of crashes are rear-enders.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a pretty big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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Editor's Note: Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that in Ontario and B.C. headlights must be on from a half-hour after sunset until a half-hour before sunrise. In fact, that is the rule in B.C., but in Ontario headlights must be on from a half-hour before sunset until to a half-hour after sunrise.

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