STREET SMARTS - Shorter days call for minimizing distractions behind wheel

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We are spending more time in the darkness as the days become shorter, and the hazards of driving increase significantly. However, there are steps that we can take to ensure that we get to our destination safely.

Traffic death rates are three times higher at night than during the daytime even though there is 75 percent less traffic out at night. Ninety percent of our reaction time depends on vision, depth perception, color recognition and peripheral vision, and these are all severely compromised after sundown.

Many of us older drivers will complain that we just can't see as well when driving at night. That is because a 50 year old driver may need twice as much light to see as well as a 30 year old. By the time we are 60, we need about 10 times as much light as a 19 year old to see clearly.

Walla Walla has had some recent car/pedestrian collisions directly related to the ability to see clearly. Some of that has to do with glare, which is a bigger problem this time of year. We are driving to work as the sun rises and will soon be leaving work in the dark.

Pedestrians are three-to-seven times more vulnerable in low-light conditions. Nationwide, 29 percent of all pedestrian fatalities occur between 8 and 11:59 p.m. Because of low light and windshield glare, I believe our greatest concern should be when our children travel to and from school.

Fortunately there are steps each of us can take to reduce the chances of causing a wreck or becoming a victim of someone else's carelessness.

Allow enough time for your eyes to fully adjust to the low light situation. This may take a few minutes.

Give yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination. If I were to give on driving tip to the average driver, it would be "don't rush." We tell are children to slow down when they are running with reckless abandon, but then often we will get in our cars and, in potentially much more dangerous circumstances, do the same thing.

Minimize glare. We need to keep our windshields clean inside and out and make sure our wipers are in good working order as we approach the rainy season. It is amazing how film builds up on the interior of windshields even in cars without smokers.

Washington State law requires that headlights be turned on 30 minutes before sunset and after sunrise. It is important to understand that headlights do not just help the driver see better, but it helps others see your car. If in doubt, turn on the headlights. Twilight is the most difficult time to drive because our eyes are constantly adapting to differing levels of darkness.

Even though most cars have interior lights that help passengers see to read, it is best to keep all interior lights off.

Avoid distractions. Night driving requires full attention. We may have night critters from raccoons to deer cross our paths. If you see one deer, expect more to follow.

Remember, most drinking drivers travel the roads at night, which undoubtedly has a lot to do with the high fatality rate after dark. We should forego all alcohol if we are driving at night. Alcohol is a sedative and even one drink can impair our ability to drive safely.

Pull over if you are sleepy. Driving while drowsy can be deadly. Make frequent stops for light snacks and exercise. If you're too tired to drive, stop and get rest.

Don't overdrive your headlights. You should be able to stop inside the illuminated area. If you're not, you are creating a blind crash area in front of your vehicle. Also, keep your headlights clean to maximize their effectiveness.

After several months of mostly daylight driving on dry roads under good conditions, we are about to enter that season when driving is more challenging. If we each take individual responsibility to follow this important advice, each of us will dramatically increase our chances of not being involved in a traffic collision and we will cause it to be safer for those around us.

Capt. Gary Bainter is Patrol Division commander for the Walla Walla Police Department. He can be reached at gbainter@ci.walla-walla.wa.us or 524-4372.

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