New safety rules aim at 'phantom vehicles' running at night without lights

Transport Canada is expected to require manufacturers to design vehicles in which tail lights are automatically illuminated, because too many drivers are forgetting to turn them on at night. The problem of "phantom vehicles" is partly the unexpected result of a 1989 requirement that vehicles have daytime running lights.

Transport Canada receives numerous complaints about drivers who fail to turn on lights

Some drivers forget to put on their tail lights at night, thinking that they come on automatically like headlamps. A new Transport Canada measure is aimed at eliminating these so-called phantom vehicles. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

The federal government is targeting the growing number of "phantom vehicles" that pose a safety hazard on Canada's roads and highways.

Transport Canada says many Canadians have written to the department warning about the dangers of vehicles that travel in the dark without their tail lights illuminated, making them hard to spot.

The reason? Daytime headlights and dashboard lights are automatically lit when most modern vehicles are started, and too many drivers erroneously assume their tail lights are also illuminated when darkness falls.

"The vehicle's illuminated dashboard can give the driver a false sense that their outside lights are activated, when they are not," says a memo to Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

"The department has received a continuous high influx of letters from the driving public raising concerns about the increasing amount of phantom vehicles on the roads."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau's department has received many letters from Canadians complaining about the 'phantom vehicle' problem. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The February 2017 memo, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, indicates new manufacturing standards to ensure tail light illumination are coming this fall.

Daytime lights reduce crashes

In the 70s and 80s, many Scandinavian countries began to require that all new vehicles be equipped with daytime running lights — headlamps that are illuminated as soon as the car or truck is started.

Canada followed with its own legislation in 1989, and that requirement has reduced two-vehicle crashes by between 5.3 per cent and 15 per cent, according to three Canadian studies from the 1990s, two of them by Transport Canada.

Since then, many manufacturers have added dashboard lights that are always on. But that combination of always-on headlamps and dashboard lights has introduced a new danger: vehicles that are invisible from the rear because the drivers forget to manually switch on their lights in dark conditions.

"These phantom vehicles also pose a safety risk to other road users as they are only seen at the last minute or when other lights are illuminated (i.e., brake lights), decreasing the available time for those other road users to react as they try to avoid a collision," says the Garneau memo.

"The department needs to find a solution that will ensure that drivers can properly see and be seen at night."

Daytime running lights at the front of vehicles are normally weaker than night-time headlights, creating another potential safety hazard whenever drivers forget to switch on the stronger lighting in the dark.

If we can do this through regulation, all the better.- Ian Jack, spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association, on a measure to eliminate 'phantom vehicles' 

Transport Canada issued proposed regulations in February 2016 that would require manufacturers to install systems to ensure rear lights are also on if automatic dashboard lights are on, or automatic activation of all lights when it gets dark.

Auto manufacturers and others were given 75 days to comment. But Garneau was told there was no consensus, which delayed the finalized regulations, now expected this fall with a mandatory compliance date of Sept. 1, 2020.

Under the proposed new rules from Transport Canada, manufacturers would be required to put new lighting systems in vehicles starting in 2020. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

While there's been crash data supporting the 1989 daytime running lights requirements, the department acknowledges "there is still no documented evidence that vehicle collisions are caused by a lack of rear daytime running lights or delayed activation of vehicle night-time lights."

CAA welcomes move

A spokesperson for the Canadian Automobile Association, representing drivers, welcomed the move.

"The message hasn't gotten through to everyone that you still need to manually turn on your lights, in many cases, in order to be seen on the road at night or during foggy conditions," said Ian Jack.

"If we can do this through regulation, all the better."

A spokesperson for the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association was not immediately available for comment.

Transport Canada spokesperson Pierre Manoni declined to comment on the regulations, saying the department is "carefully reviewing all comments received."

"Once the review is complete, the department will submit its response."

There is no national requirement in the United States for manufacturers to install automatic daytime running lights in new vehicles.

Finland was the first country in the world to impose a daytime running light rule, in 1972, though only for five winter months on some roads. The measure was expanded in 1997 to cover the entire year and all roads.

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About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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