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Thinking About September

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
It is time to remind drivers that it is getting dark earlier, and dark-colored cars with no lights against asphalt roads are not visible even though there may be light in the sky still.

I changed lanes in front of a dark-colored car with no lights. The driver put on the brakes, but if I had seen it, I would not have pulled over to the right.

Georgia Weatherhead

On Sept. 1, the sun will set at 7:39 p.m. By the end of the month, it will set at 6:53 p.m. Back on June 29, it was 8:38 p.m. We'll fall back to Standard Time on Nov. 4.

From the Virginia driver's manual: "At sunset, as soon as light begins to fade, turn on your headlights to make your vehicle more visible to others. You must use headlights from sunset to sunrise." Motorists must use headlights when visibility is reduced to 500 feet, the manual says.

Same in Maryland about sunset and sunrise, and: "You must turn on your headlights at other times when you cannot see persons or vehicles on the highway clearly at a distance of 1,000 feet or less."

It's about seeing and being seen.

What else should local travelers be thinking about as we approach September? Of course, it's not only the change of season, but also the return of congestion and crowding to roads, buses and trains. Classes are resuming and we need to be on the lookout for school buses and children in the crosswalks. But what other lookouts would you veteran travelers want to post?

(I'll be away for a few days, but hope to use some of your suggested advisories in an upcoming Dr. Gridlock column.)

By Robert Thomson  |  August 27, 2007; 5:31 AM ET
Categories:  Commuting  
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Next: Travel Advisories for the September Return


People failing to use headlights at night has become a plague around the DC area. I believe that driving without lights is far more dangerous than going 70 mph on the Beltway, regardless of what the government hype would have us believe.

I wish people would understand why they're required to use their headlights in the rain, too. Too many people fail to do so. It's not to help YOU see--it's to help OTHER drivers see you. I refer to the headlightless cars in the rain as the "invisible cars" because you never know whether someone's back there in a real downpour.

I could go on with a laundry list of things, but will leave it there for now.

Posted by: Rich | August 27, 2007 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Leaves+rain=skidding/hydroplaning. People are notorious for coming to halt the moment rain starts to fall, but people also fail to realize leaves make things 100 times worse in the roadway, especially on curvy roads. Turn the headlights on and keep a lookout.

Posted by: Chris | August 27, 2007 10:33 AM | Report abuse

And parking lights are no substitute for headlights. Why turn on your parking lights instead of your headlights?

I learned to drive in Florida where it was the law that if you turned on your windshield wipers, you had to turn on your headlights. I left Florida 21 years ago, but still follow that procedure.

Can't auto manufacturers make cars whose headlights will turn on automatically when the windshield wipers are engaged?

Posted by: Dan | August 27, 2007 10:33 AM | Report abuse

As a mass transit commuter I am thinking about reflective tape and flashers.

Last year I bought a reflective tag with a battery that I put on the strap of my tote bag. When I get off Metro and start my walk in neighborhood streets I turn it on. I've also got some glow sticks I twist to "glow."

Despite glowing and flashing I still had a couple of close calls crossing Georgia Ave -in lighted intersections when I was crossing with the light.

When I get onto my neighborhood streets I keep an eye out for traffic and don't assume they will bother to see me.

So Robin Gihvan, if I look unfashionable glowing and flashing in athletic shoes with reflective bands on them please remember that I'm trying to staying away from any runway events where I'm in a coffin!

Posted by: RoseG | August 27, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Rich--Couldn't agree more.

Dan--It's the law in Virginia and Maryland, too. Virginia (for all their other signage issues) at least has signs stating as much when you enter the state. In Maryland, you wouldn't know it because there aren't any signs. You also wouldn't know it by observing all the police vehicles driving without headlights during the rain, either.

Posted by: cb | August 27, 2007 12:28 PM | Report abuse

"Virginia (for all their other signage issues) at least has signs stating as much when you enter the state."

I wish they would make one addition to those signs, though, by adding the words "STATE LAW" to make it clearer. North Carolina's signs say, "State Law: Burn Headlights When Using Wipers." Virginia's omit the part about it being the law. I suppose it's a minor nit in that the people who need the signs to remind them to do this are the ones who aren't likely to do it at all anyway.

Another thought I had as something for people getting back to their commuting grind is that everyone, but especially Metrorail passengers, would benefit from washing their hands frequently. I suppose this is outside the normal bailiwick of commuter advice, but it's a health issue. Think about how many hands have touched the poles on any given Metro car on any given day. You don't know where those hands have been or whether they were washed.....

Posted by: Rich | August 27, 2007 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Another option is to use the headlights at most or all times. Some cars in the US (and all in Canada) have daytime running lights, which burn at a lower intensity but are still visible at a good distance; in the absence of these, I turn my lights on whenever there is any reduction in visibility (e.g. fog, overcast).

Posted by: andrew | August 27, 2007 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Andrew makes a nice point about daytime running lights. But one of the things that you do not get when relying only on the DRLs is that the folks behind you don't get the benefits of taillights until you start to brake. If you have to stop short, well... hope the groceries in the back are salvageable ;)

Posted by: Petey | August 27, 2007 2:04 PM | Report abuse

With the changing light, now is also a good time to consider a thorough cleaning of all the windows of our vehicles. Inside and out. A lot of the blinding glare of driving into the sun can be reduced significantly with just a little Windex.

Posted by: Kabi | August 27, 2007 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Dry leaves + throwing a cigarette out the window = fire. This happens too often in my neighborhood.

Around October morning glare is going to be an issue on 66 and the Toll Road - keep sunglasses handy in the car.

Posted by: mm | August 27, 2007 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Dr. Gridlock said that he will be away this week, so I will take it on myself to link the news from WTOP that the Douglass Bridge is reportedly re-opening for the Thursday morning commute:

Posted by: Rich | August 28, 2007 10:07 AM | Report abuse

So any good horror story commutes from the metro issues over the past few days? I am lucky enough not to have been caught in any of them.

I've seen lots of comments from the article on homepage regarding a total lack of communication on metro's part. E-mail alerts that didn't say anything about the problems, station managers that didn't know what was going on, a break down of communication between metro and riders about where to get shuttle buses, etc. Personally, I think it's obvious that these are the types of things that the new GM should be tackling first, because they are consistently a problem.

But I want to pose a question to riders.
Let's just say there was decent communication, but it still took you a couple hours to get home. (Just due to the situation, full shuttle buses, slow trains, long commutes to get around the problem, etc.) Would you still be up in arms about the situation? Would you be more understanding since you atleast knew what was going on? Or would you still be upset complaining metro still didn't do enough?

Personally I think this city has too many complainers. Yes I would be upset if my usual commute home had some major delay due to metro, but it doesn't do me much to sit and stew and get all stressed out about it. It would be the same situation if I was driving and they had to close down all of 95 because of some major accident. I think people need to be a little more proactive and have alternate plans for situations like this. Because obviously they are going to happen. So you can either get really upset and be 3 hours late. Or you can be slightly annoyed and get home faster.

Everyone who takes metro should take a look and maybe even print out a copy of the bus system map found on the metro web page. If you keep the copy with you, when situations like this happen you can pull it out and figure out what buses might be able to get you home, without having to rely on the shuttles. Find out roughly how much a cab ride from various stations on your route would cost. Then you can weigh your options. Put local cab numbers in your cell phone. Be aware of friends who may live along your route. Perhaps you could call them and go to their place to wait out the issues. If they are really nice maybe they will give you a ride somewhere. There are other options! Just use your brain a little!

(I realize these things don't help people who are stuck on a train in the tunnel, so don't jump down my throat about it. Not every gets stuck in the train though).

Posted by: Laura | August 28, 2007 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Settle down Laura.

Posted by: biggin | August 28, 2007 3:00 PM | Report abuse

Human eye sees yellow (parking lights) at greater disatance than white (headlights, tailights); and since object is to be seen... QED, parking lights. Also, headlights/brights serve better as signals (e.g., "I'm yielding/there's room to merge" or "The light has changed, idiot") than the horn.

So, let me get this straight- every time I use wipers to undo some squeegee guy's handiwork, I need to spotlight him as well? I don't think so...

Posted by: Steve Austin | August 28, 2007 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I drive with my lights on whenever I'm driving, ever since years ago I learned it increased safety in Sweden, and quickly made sense. It's now my BIGGEST pet peeve to see Idioten driving in rain, or even low light, without their lights on.

I even have recently driven (after slowing down!) with my hazard lights flashing during a extremely heavy downpour. I would have pulled over to the freeway shoulder, but I feel unsafe trying to merge back into too high speed traffic from the shoulder.

I disagree that yellow lights alone are visible enough.

Posted by: Paul | August 29, 2007 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I, too, disagree that yellow lights alone are visible enough. For me, it is harder to calculate the distance; sometimes they seem farther away, which is not good.

I also have a problem with those who use their daytime running lights when they should be using their standard head and tail lights. So many times I have come upon a car with no taillights that is difficult to see because of road spray, etc. only to discover that they do have their DRLs on. This practice does not improve the situation when being approached from behind. Seeing this so often on interstates makes me unlikely to use any DRLs that my car might have.

Posted by: Historian | August 29, 2007 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I always use my headlights, regardless of weather, if I'm driving on a two-lane road where passing is done over the center line. The concept is similar to DRLs, and this is indeed the main situation for which DRLs were developed. It's MUCH easier to tell whether there is oncoming traffic, and thus whether it's safe to pull out to pass, if people have their lights on, even during the day. I first saw this in Canada back in the early 1980s and it made a lot of sense to me. I do not normally do this on the Interstate because it's less of a problem there (theoretically one should never encounter oncoming traffic on the Interstate).

Down South I routinely see people use their flashers in heavy downpours. I don't know why that's never caught on around here.

Posted by: Rich | August 29, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

There's a rumor that the South Capitol Street bridge will open tomorrow morning 8/30, ahead of schedule.

Posted by: md commuter | August 29, 2007 5:15 PM | Report abuse

md commuter

That is true. It's a week ahead of schedule I believe I heard. They reported about it on the news this morning.

Posted by: Laura | August 29, 2007 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I inadvertently cut off a guy who was using just his parking lights at about 8:00 last night. It was a black car and it appeared to be (a) farther away than it was and (b) moving slower than it was. 8:00 is after sunset in the first place, so driving with just the parking lights was illegal, but I genuinely do not understand this attitude that you should use just the parking lights so that you can see your dashboard gauges. Parking lights do not help anyone else see you as a moving car; they're called "parking lights" because in some parts of the world, those lights are to be turned on when a car is parked on the side of the road so as to help people see the car in the dark. Note that this means the car is stationary!

Posted by: Rich | August 30, 2007 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Turn on the lights, how hard is that. Well, the guy on I-66 a couple of years back who was rear-ended by a pick-up sure learned the hard way. In the rain, pick-up slams into a car he really couldn't see (I know the driver of the pick-up, honest guy). The driver, who had his daytime running lights on, was charged for several things in the accident that were related to unsafe driving. Because he didn't turn the knob one more click, his car was totaled and he had to pay for the other guy in addition to other fined levied against him.

I loved living in Florida with their laws of wipers on, lights on. I just got into the habit of always turning my lights on. I'm making sure that I'm seen from the front and back.

On the topic of hazards, trucks are required to use them in a lot of states and I believe the law is if you must slow down by 10 mph from the normal flow of traffic or speed limit (whichever is higher), then turn on your hazards to increase visibility of your vehicle to others. It's the same as when trucks are going up big hills, they know they are going to be slowing down so they turn on their hazards.

One more on the headlights. Two nights ago, around 9 p.m., I was crossing the street on foot to get to my house. A car came barreling down on me, never saw it until it slammed on its breaks and the driver then proceeded to curse at me. I took out my phone and recorded the person screaming obscenities WITHOUT headlights on. I then sent this to the police. Haven't heard back yet, but this guy was driving way past sun down, without his lights on and the tire marks he left on the road are evidence enough that he was speeding (my guess, somewhere around 50 in a 25 with a stop sign ahead) and I'm hoping he does have to pay the extra $3,000 if convicted (if they do anything about it). Sorry if you can't afford it bud, but I'm done complaining about the law, I understand it better now. It's meant to take jerks like this off the road.

Posted by: Harry S. | August 31, 2007 9:44 AM | Report abuse

The other problem with parking lights is evident in Rich's post--the dashboard lights are on with parking lights, making it easy to THINK that the headlights are on, when in fact, they may not be.

Posted by: cb | August 31, 2007 9:59 AM | Report abuse

hand in your licenses until you all get Lasik.

Posted by: Steve Austin | August 31, 2007 10:00 AM | Report abuse

so is residential parking free in Georgetown on Sunday?

Posted by: chuck | August 31, 2007 11:01 PM | Report abuse

"The other problem with parking lights is evident in Rich's post--the dashboard lights are on with parking lights, making it easy to THINK that the headlights are on, when in fact, they may not be."

I think that's why some people use the parking lights. They feel that they can see the road OK and don't need headlights, so they use the parking lights to illuminate the dash.

My rule is that if I have any doubt about how well I can see the cars in my rearview, my lights go on.

Posted by: Rich | August 31, 2007 11:11 PM | Report abuse

If this blog was being run by someone competent, we'd have reminders about the track work taking place this weekend...

Posted by: Lindemann | August 31, 2007 11:16 PM | Report abuse

Yes, residential parking is free on Sundays throughout the city. On Saturdays its free everywhere but Georgetown. Weekdays, 2 hours b/w 7:00 AM and 8:30 PM, or get the person you are visiting to pick up a guest permit at their district MPD station.

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 2, 2007 1:56 PM | Report abuse

d'uh I mean is it free in Georgetown on Labor Day.

Posted by: chuck | September 2, 2007 2:15 PM | Report abuse


He did say he was going to be gone for several days.

That's not to say thay couldn't have a substitute doing just exactly what you describe...

Posted by: cb | September 3, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I think Sunday parking rules are in effect on holidays.

Posted by: Woodley Park | September 4, 2007 10:44 AM | Report abuse

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