I bet you opened this up thinking it was a great technical document on how taillights work — well, in some ways it is; in other ways, it’s more of a rant about my fellow Canadians and their (lack of) understanding of taillamps and how they function.

Road safety comes down to four simple words: See and be seen. And what better way to be seen than to have your headlights and taillights illuminated — especially at night or during foul weather. The Ontario highway traffic act states: When on a highway at any time from one-half hour before sunset to one-half hour after sunrise and at any other time when, due to insufficient light or unfavourable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of 150 metres or less…

It’s currently Spring — what happens in Spring? It rains a lot, and what happens when it rains? Visibility is reduced. At dusk, visibility may be fine for you looking forward but it may not be fine for those following your car, which is kicking up water, shielding your car from view for those behind you.

In Canada, our vehicles have daytime-running lights (DRLs), which are mandatory on any new vehicle imported after 1990. This is great for when you are approaching an oncoming car, as the added illumination at the front of your vehicle allows drivers to see you and hopefully not veer into your path. But with the exception of a few vehicles in the marketplace, DRLs do not illuminate your taillights, and this is a safety concern.

Nearly every car manufactured today has a light switch somewhere to the left of the steering wheel, and I can guarantee you that if it’s not on the left of your steering wheel it is on the right, because every road legal car has a headlamp on/off switch. That switch not only turns on your headlamps so that you can see in the dark, but it illuminates your taillights so that motorists behind you can see you from a distance.

If you are so lucky to have a modern vehicle you may have automatic headlights — these turn off and on automatically based on the amount of ambient light a sensor detects. Some vehicles are tuned to turn on the lights early, while some do not work in these adverse conditions. If your car is equipped with automatic headlights, for the most part you are safe, so set it and leave it — but watch the gauge cluster for the universal symbol for headlights so that you as a driver are aware if your lights are on or not and override the system if you feel it necessary.

If you own a Subaru — lucky you. Why not just turn on your headlights and leave them on at all times? Subarus for the longest time (my 1984 Impreza was equipped with this feature) automatically disable the headlamps when you turn the ignition off — so, again, set it and forget it. Be sure to read your owner’s manual — you may be surprised at what you learn!

On a recent trip travelling Ontario’s Highway 401 from Ottawa to Kingston at dusk, I passed many drivers that do not realize the headlight switch exists — I’d flash my headlights at them and it was like I was an alien to them. I even passed one tractor-trailer driver without his taillights on, but a quick flash to him and he responded with turning on his lights and thanking me via the universal four-way flasher.

Tractor trailers have ten or more taillights on the back of their rigs — they are huge, you can’t miss these massive vehicles travelling down the road, so why do they have so many lights? See and be seen — it is the key to road safety. Please be safe and allow others to be safe at the same time… turn on those lights!




About James Bergeron

James Bergeron is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is also a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).