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Canada’s New Automatic Headlight Rules Combat ‘Phantom Vehicles’

(C) urbancow – Getty Images As of September 1, all new vehicles must have headlights and taillights that turn themselves on at dark and dashboards that stay dark if the headlights are off.

  • Starting in September 2021, all new vehicles sold in Canada need to have headlights, taillights, and side lights that automatically turn on in the dark. Also, the dashboard won’t light up until the headlights are turned on.
  • It’s a safety issue, says Transport Canada, which announced the rules changes were coming two years ago. With more lights on, cars won’t look like “phantom vehicles.”
  • The new rules apply not just to cars, trucks, and SUVs but also motorcycles and heavy trucks.

The first time I was ever pulled over was when I was in high school and forgot to turn my headlights on after leaving the movie theater.

I can’t recall which movie we went to see, but I do remember thinking that my lights were on because I could see the roads just fine. The police officer could tell otherwise, and my friend didn’t let me forget about it for weeks. This is the kind of story that Canada will soon no longer allow its teenage drivers to tell, now that new regulations went into effect this month to make sure cars don’t drive around in the dark without headlights, what Transport Canada called “phantom vehicles” and a serious safety risk.

Transport Canada’s new law, known as the Canadian Vehicle Lighting Regulation, requires changes to the way car headlights operate in the Great White North. First, any vehicle with daytime running lights will have to also turn on the taillights when the DRLs come on. Second, headlights, taillights, and side marker lights will have to turn on automatically when it’s dark out.

Third, and this is the part that would have helped me, the dashboard has to stay dark until headlights are turned on, to make sure the driver realizes that their lights are off. All new vehicles–including cars, trucks, SUVs, three-wheeled vehicles, motorcycles, and heavy trucks–sold in Canada will be subject to this new regulation. Automakers have had time to get their vehicles to comply with the new regulations, because they’ve been in the works since 2019, when Transport Canada announced the changes.

No similar change has been announced for the U.S. Transport Canada helpfully created a chart to show drivers what lights they’re supposed to be using and when.

(C) Transport Canada Transport Canada how to use lights chart

In 2008, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that DRLs had no statistically significant overall effects” on three types of crashes: when two passenger vehicles crash (but excluding rear-end crashes), when a passenger vehicle crashes into pedestrians or cyclists, and when a passenger vehicle hits a motorcycle. “When combining these three target crashes into one target crash, the DRL effects were also not statistically significant,” NHTSA’s report said. “When examined separately for passenger cars and light trucks/vans (LTVs), DRLs in LTVs significantly reduced LTVs’ involvements in the target two-vehicle crashes by 5.7 percent.”

Automatic-headlight technology is not exactly new. In the early 1950s, General Motors developed a system that GM called its “Autronic Eye” light-sensing phototube. When the eye was flooded with light – from an oncoming vehicle, for example – it automatically dimmed the car’s headlights on the Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs that Hagerty said used this technology.

GM also developed a similar system with its “Twilight Sentinel” that could turn the headlights on or off in the 1960s.

Ford also developed its “Autolamp” system in the 1950s.

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