The True History of DRLs

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Perhaps the most annoying aspect of Safetyism is that it’s actually about money. Daytime Running Lights – the always-on headlights that almost all new vehicles come standard with – are an excellent case-in-point.

Before the mid-late 1980s, it was uncommon to see a car with its headlights on in broad daylight, it being stupid and obnoxious to drive around in broad daylight with your car’s headlights on.

Then along came GM.

GM wanted to save some money, but it needed an excuse to do it. That excuse was  . . . safety. The bottom line was different.

Here are the facts:

GM had (and still has) plants in Canada and sells a lot of vehicles in Canada. At the time, Canada had a requirement that vehicles burn their headlights in daylight hours because in parts of Canada, there is less daylight during the daytime, especially toward the end of the day – due to Canada being closer to the North pole. So GM was obliged to install the necessary lighting systems in the vehicles it sold in Canada, to comply with the Canadian requirement.

But there was no such requirement in America at the time – there being (usually) plenty of daylight in America during the daytime hours. The vehicles GM made for the American market had different lighting systems than the ones GM installed in Canadian-market versions of the same vehicles. The cost-per-vehicle difference was small but when you factor the cost out over hundreds of thousands of vehicles, it becomes not-small.

GM’s solution? Make Daytime Running Lights standard equipment in all the vehicles it sold – and sell this stupid and obnoxious feature as a saaaaaaaaaaaaaafety feature. GM could preen – and pocket – at the same time! Other car companies saw – and followed suit. And that is why almost all vehicles currently on the market have headlights that cannot be turned off, which is more than just stupid and obnoxious.

It is wasteful – and unsafe.

Wasteful ought to be obvious. Burning headlights all the time burns them out sooner, necessitating their replacement earlier than would otherwise be the case. And since headlights have evolved in complexity since the ’80s, the cost of replacing headlights has gone up from what used to be $25 or so for a  sealed beam glass headlight to twice as much as that for the LED bulbs – plural – that are used in many late-model headlight assemblies. Green Communists also ought to be “concerned” about the the additional burning of gas and the attendant additional “emissions” of the dread gas carbon dioxide that attends burning headlights constantly. To keep those headlights burning, it is necessary to keep that engine running (and the alternator charging).

Never mind – because it’s “safer” . . . right?

Arguably, it isn’t.

In the first place, having two-out-of-three vehicles on the road with their headlights on in broad daylight creates visual clutter. It is much more difficult to see motorcycles and emergency vehicles (and funeral processions) today because of all those always-on headlights. Before DRLs were oilily made standard equipment in so many vehicles, motorcycles and emergency vehicles and funeral processions were much easier to see in the crowd. Because they were4 the only vehicles in the crowd with their headlights burning in broad daylight.

And seeing is safe.

Not being able to isn’t.

This brings up the glare created by always-on headlights, especially in daytime. You have probably had your eyes blinded by the light, to borrow a line from Manfred Mann and the Earth Band. Headlights on in daytime – especially modern-car high-intensity headlights – can do just that.

Which brings us to the issue of unintended consequences.

All GM intended to do by standardizing DRLs on all the vehicles it made was to save itself money (and thereby make some money). But this savings has come at a cost, one that can be measured in more than dollars and cents and – if you are a Green Communist – the increased wastage and “emissions” of the dread gas carbon dioxide that results from all those headlights on, all the time.

Safetyism is dangerous.

It engenders new problems in the process of ostensibly addressing existing ones. As for example the Advanced Safety Technologies now standard in pretty much every new vehicle, along with DRLs. These incentivize inattention and discourage the developing of driving skills by encouraging drivers to depend on “technology” to “keep them safe.” When the “technology” glitches, it is no longer very safe.

Another example is federal impact-resistance requirements. Modern cars can absorb a rear-ender better than old cars made before the current requirements went into effect. But modern cars also have chest-high asses and are so difficult to see behind that cameras are required to see what’s behind them – in order to avoid backing up over a kid who might happen to be there.

Such pros and cons are of course part and parcel of just about everything in life. But there is something worse than merely obnoxious and stupid when the pros and cons are imposed by others who arrogantly presume to make these value judgments for you.

. . .

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50 COMMENTS

  1. DRLs and headlamp-on laws have been around longer than you think. Sweden began requiring DRLs in the late 1970s. Until Canada required them in 1990, these laws were mostly in Scandinavian countries.

    You have to ask, why not simply pass laws requiring headlamps to be on at certain times? Why add to vehicle complexity even more?

  2. Too bad there are airplanes that bomb people, too bad there are missiles that cause death and destruction, time to ban airplanes and missiles that do serious damage in this world, first and second, not guns. Look at what they do, people experience suffering, misery and grief. What good is it all doing?

    I don’t need a fighter jet to kill skunks and gophers, that’s under control. No missile needed to shoot geese and ducks, that’s covered too. A shotgun and a rifle will do.

    Food, clothing, and housing are far more important than driving people out of house and home. Shine those high-intensity LED’s straight into their eyes and temporarily blind them, then take them hostage. What civilized people do all of the time.

    Those carbon emissions from bombs and depleted uranium munitions emissions are not going to save the earth. Use the resources for doggone good, not evil.

    Somebody has to make war illegal or something.

    I mean, come on, Netanyahu is one silver-tongued devil, no not that, an asshole, ain’t nothing else. Have to use the word wisely.

    Picking on Gazans won’t win any Brownie Points for Israel.

    Now Yemen has a red glow tonight.

    Karma looms for those who won’t play by God’s rules.

    It all smells really bad, the stench is intolerable. Your olfactory is offended, your lying eyes should cry in shame.

    Your neighbor needs to be killed, peaceful war isn’t killing, murder, just body counts. Statistics count, not human lives, no matter creed, color, blood. Dead bodies on both sides are being stacked just as Charles Manson’s prescience is being proved.

    “I want to see dead bodies stacked as high as I can see.” – Charles Manson, words spoken by Chuck in an interview on tv a long time ago

    Charles Manson knew the future back then. Uncanny.

    Those covetous, lying, thieving, blasphemous, murdering, God-hating no good filthy rotten to the core dirty Jews need to straighten up and fly right.

    Peace for me, but not for thee. Gaza will be another Golden Calf. It ain’t gonna work, never will. What you see is actions speaking louder than words.

    Redemption? Repentance? Later. The poor fool Jews will never learn. Have to still pray for them and hope they do see the light. Never give up hope.

    The time to speak up has passed, now is the time for senseless bickering.

  3. I’ve been a Southerner almost my whole life and just moved to the great white North.

    If safety was the real concern, then side view mirrors would all have been heated long before DRLs. Being able to see to navigate is the most important thing. It was easily one of my favorite features of my last company vehicle while still in the South. Now that I’m up North, I really really really want heated mirrors, much much more than remote start. I’m not bothered by being cold for a few minutes waiting for the cab to warm but having your mirrors ice over after clearing them with an ice scraper 20 minutes earlier is a bit of a pain.

    However; this article has me thinking I will be paying more attention to the vehicles that leave the roadway and become stranded in the snow. General local consensus is that its trucks that are most often seen off the road. Mainly because of the confidence a 4×4 truck brings in foul weather.

    But in a simple recollection since I have been here, the vehicles I remember being off the road are generally late model vehicles. Is it the “driver assistance” causing the problem in later model vehicles? I’m sure sail fawns are playing a part but I will be paying attention going forward to the make/models of roadway navigation failures.

    • Hi J,

      My hypothesis is that as time passes, more new drivers enter the fray who have not learned how to drive and maybe never well, in part because there is little if any expectation for them to develop skills such as keeping a car under control when it slides on a snow/ice-slicked surface. “Safety assistance technology” fosters passivity and recklessness. I say the same about ABS too, by the way. It encourages people to drive faster than they have skill to handle, to tailgate and so on.

      • Hi Eric, I have not specifically returned to my career field for my first winter here so I could learn to drive in foul conditions that are a daily occurrence here but only a 1 or 2 day event in the South. I’m easily a 1.25 Million+ miles driven driver (and 25 of 50 US states driven in) but I knew I didn’t know real winter driving and didn’t want to take a job that requires me to drive all winter long.

        I don’t know when a person goes from being a cheechako to a sourdough but the record 78 inches of snow in decades we’ve had up til now, I’ve gotten my practice in. So much so that I show up for work when natives don’t.

        This place is no place to be distracted by anything while driving in the winter. It’s hard to see in the dark, you have to stay in the ruts of previous vehicles, and grit just gets all over everything including the headlights and windshield. If these conditions ruin my view so much that I have to maintain cleanliness, then the electronics of “safety” systems in late model vehicles are surely compromised.

        “Lane assist” up here seems like it would be a bad thing as you cannot see most of the road markings and you have to follow the ruts of previous travelers which sometimes lead you into the rumble strips. “Lane assist”? How about “rut assist”?

    • J,
      I think much of that is that they fail to realize that while AWD does very well at accelerating on bad roads, they do not stop any better than 2WDs do. Another point of failure is that most 2 lane roads have banked curves, and it you take the curve too slow, you will slide off the inside. Might want to take note of which side of the road most leave the road on. In my recent experience, since the increase of AWD, most go off the inside.

  4. I have a 2000 Chev C3500 with the 7″ rectangular sealed beam and I too had DRL, which the relay would would reduce the voltage for a dimmer light during the day which will cause the bulb to go out faster, the key was to use the ground wire for the relay to the emergency brake pedal when depressed would shut off the DRLs. So, being a cheap skate that hated buying new bulbs I grounded it permanently and my head light switch will still turn the lights on when it gets dark (lazy freaking people can’t be bothered to turn on headlights anymore.) I don’t burn out my headlights anymore. I also don’t drive at night due to the new a@@wipe bright headlights and people are driving with their high-beams on. My truck is now 24 years old, 240,000 miles on a original engine and tranny. I have been offered $15,000 for it. No Sale!

  5. Now to the most STUPID aspect of any legacy vehicle headlight discussion. Why can up to 25amp headlights be turned on without a key in the ignition anyway?

    Completely re tar ded. Easy no brainer to repair.

    Get wiring diagram for vehicle and a $4, 12 volt generic auto stuff god relay.

    Positively Id headlight relay and its trigger line from light switch or whatever nanny junk playing decider.

    Locate run mode only 12vdc wire from key switch. Interrupt existing headlight relay trigger line and install new relays N.O. contacts in either polarity. Splice new relays trigger + into run logic +12vdc wire. Run trigger- of new relay to chassis gnd.

    Now your headlights will only come on when the key is in run position.

  6. GM tried to get a US federal regulation requiring DRLs so that it would have a competitive advantage over other automakers since it owned a DRL component supplier. Thankfully that reg didn’t get past the public comment stage.

    • Between Fernley and Las Vegas NV on 95. “Daytime headlight safety zone” posted black on yellow literally any and everywhere outside stupid 35mph zones around mostly abandoned chicken shacks.

      No, Im not making this up.

  7. OT but relevant to this forum:
    “ Hertz said Thursday it will sell one-third of its electric vehicle (EV) automobiles to resize its fleet in line with slowing demand growth for emission-free transport.
    The rental car giant will sell 20,000 EVs in the United States, steering a portion of the funds to purchase “internal combustion engine vehicles to meet customer demand,”

    Reality bites, bitchez. Don’t want to be looking for a charger and wasting your vacation time sitting at a charger when you should be with the family at Disney World.

    • Thereby increasing supply into an EV market with ever-diminishing demand. Uh oh. It feels a bit like 2022 when cracks started to publicly appear with the bullshit vaxx narrative, and then suddenly the whole thing fell apart.

  8. I find the bigger safety issue to be nighttime running lights. These high powered LED spotlights that could illuminate a professional sports stadium currently used as headlights. Driving along a two lane road at night and being temporarily blinded by a BMW or Audi coming the other way. Then after the encounter waiting for the purple spot from my burned retina to dissipate. Unnecessary.

    • I’ve noticed that too, BAC,
      Used to be just the high end cars had the ultra bright blue spectrum whites, now seems like all the new cars have them. I dread driving at night because it takes awhile for my 76 year old eyes to recover from getting fried by oncoming traffic.

    • The old A3 TDI had HID projector lights. They were on gimbals with an accelerometer that kept them level and angled toward the curb. An overly complicated setup for sure, but I never got flashed by oncoming traffic and could read road signs a mile away.

      Aftermarket HIDs don’t do that.

    • Yes. Or when they ride your tail & the lights are shining right into the rear view mirror

      Even on dim mode it’s annoyingly bright

      • Ahh you are “that guy” with the overly bright aftermarket non-adjusting HIDs on a truck that blasts right into people’s rearview mirror. There is something to be said for publicly admitting your a d-bag. 👍😛

        • LED’s, and no, not a douchebag at all, ya old cunt, as again, LED’s are either too weak or too strong, no in betweens.

          That said, maybe if you all tinted your windows, you wouldn’t be blinded, as again, I can prove to you that those are the low beams with a simple flash.

  9. When one headlight goes out, you buy a two-pack, then can never remember where the extra is at.

    Those super bright white headlights running during the day are the most obnoxious of all.

    Can’t turn them off, uff da. Norwegians must be making the stupid regulations these days, Canadians too. Up there in Frostbite Falls, it does get cold. When the sun’s rays don’t make it past the Arctic Circle, it stays dark all night long at the North Pole.

    Didn’t you just have to pull the knob out and the lights came on? A pull switch, just do that. The dimmer switch was on the floor board.

    Have to go back to vintage classic manufacturing methods, you’ll have buying customers.

    All this safety stuff is blindfolding the drivers.

    Light Detection And Ranging works, LIDAR, is a functional technology. Airplanes use it.

    Not only 3-D mapping, time is also involved.

    My daughter owned a 2006 Subaru Outback, nice car, engine failure forced her to buy another vehicle. She sold it, the buyer paid her a few hundred dollars.

    Subarus are in demand for parts and tires, wheels, whatever will meet a supply of some kind. Have to abandon the current manufacturing and revert back to what was once there in the beginning.

    Buy an old hand-built car like a Bugatti, spendy at 1.6 million wampum, so a used Volvo will be a better choice for 7,000 USD. Better to have the Volvo than the money frittered away on a dotgov chimera of a vehicle.

    Seems to be the reasonable solution to escape the dreaded nightmare of safety-ism.

    Get back to where you once belonged – The Beatles

  10. The modern headlight is another example of increased complexity and cost for no real good reason. “Old Yeller” my 1979 Pontiac had a four headlight rectangular sealed beam setup. When halogen sealed beams went to market I was all in especially the two high beams. My work commute was many times in the dark in the country, that car on high beam would “daylight” the road and saved me from several deer / elk collisions. Cost? The 20 bucks for the halogens seemed a bit much at the time, hah!
    For those too young to know, these were all glass no plastic with perfect optics that never yellowed. Pick up a rock you’re out $20 for a replacement, and ten minutes of your time.

    The “projector” lamps in my 2018 Jeep are barely adequate on low beam and do no better than that ‘79 Pontiac on high beam. Priced an OEM headlight assembly lately?
    Grandson scuffed the headlight on the Mazda 6, we’ll be doing sanding and a refinish as it’s north of $600 for a PLASTIC factory headlight.

    Not only cost, but time! Daughters Acura has HID lighting (Latin for useless) that have now aged out, they take forever to warm up. The bulb you can get to, but the ballast unit requires the front fascia removal, hours of work. Son in law is hoping it’s just the bulbs I’m not hopeful.

  11. Another drawback is the premature yellowing of the plastic headlight lenses. The heating from the bulb expands the plastic, trapping dust and dirt as you drive.

    • Ken, just saw you already mentioned this…

      Anyway, this creates a safety concern (a real one) the dimmer the lights become because of lense yellowing.

    • Another thing,,, The plastic lens on my 98 regal turns an fugly yellow after about ten years. Replaced them twice now. Run about $100 for both. And gotta give GM an attaboy. The lights are held in by plastic pins. I can replace both in ten minutes or less. Changing out one headlamp on my 17 Frontier requires half the front grill and other parts removal.

  12. I’m one of those dickheads who always drives with my lights on (halogens) and I’ve done so for decades now. I figure the tiny bit extra visibility is worth it and I don’t mind replacing my cheap bulbs. I haven’t done any official randomized control studies but as an avid cyclist I’ve noticed many situations where I’ll see a car more easily with it’s lights on than not, particularly in terrible sun glare situations. I also enjoy a bit of extra emissions to annoy Greta and her ill.

    But I despise mandated or automatic lights of any kind… for God’s sake let me choose! On or off and nothing in between for me….

  13. One of the particularly odious aspects of the advent of DRL “technology” is that when you are driving, the dash light is always on. In the old days, when your regular headlights were off, so were the dash lights. I would wager that DRLs and constant on instrument clusters have resulted in issues with people driving in the dark, thinking their headlights were on. I know it has. It has happened to me

  14. DRLs are a great way to get hassled by the men in black too. “Do you know why I pulled you over? OK, you’re a particular individual who has got a light out.” As he looks around the back seat and maybe does a little sniffing of the air…

  15. You neglected to mention my biggest problem with the daytime runners…..People think they have their lights on at night because it appears the headlights are working. See them almost every time I drive at night. Cars with only daytime runners on, talk about making things unsafe.

    • Oh god, those folks.

      I see them all the time, from behind at night, you only notice them if your lights are on their car or if they brake, and in front, they got barely any illumination, makes you wonder how they manage

      They mentioned it here as well, https://s3mag.com/tone-down-the-drls/, and on a side note, try and get in touch with them Eric, as You, Mike and John would have a blast doing a podcast together!

    • Ugh, I see that up here all the time, Nick. Moron people driving around with no tail lights on, dark hell outside, thinking to themselves, “I’m good, I got my lights on”, while people nearly run into the back of them. All the while, I think to myself, “…and these people vote”!

    • Canada recently revised its DRL laws for new cars to require taillights to be lit when DRLs are on. People driving at night on only DRLs has to be the reason. So new Canadian cars will have DRLs and taillights on at all times when the ignition is on.

  16. ‘Before the mid-late 1980s, it was uncommon to see a car with its headlights on in broad daylight’ — eric

    At least they have not yet required individual vehicles to have the white flashing strobe light seen on the rear of every school bus, by diktat of the US fedgov. Maybe it’s a school bus mating signal: hump the yellow whales!

    But to prep us for that day, states (with fedgov funding) have implemented 20-mile saaaaaaafety corridors, where speeding fines are doubled AND ‘lights on for safety’ is commanded.

    I drove through two of these in New Mexico the other day, giving the middle finger to the signs announcing their beginning and end. Didn’t turn muh lights on neither. F*ck them if they can’t take a joke.

  17. My 91 Buick Century wagon was sold in Canada 1st, and its headlights were always on unless the parking brake was engaged. The halogen bulbs were cheap, and rarely burned out. I didn’t object them at all, it beats having some other idiot claiming they could not see me and pull out in front of me.

  18. Parking lights are just as effective, and not nearly as bright. But it is illegal to drive with them on in some States. Oh, but you do have to turn them on. So “inconvenient”!

  19. Interesting history lesson.

    The DRL’s on my 24-year-old GMC Sierra are off by virtue of the fact the bulbs burn out as soon as they’re installed (seems that way anyhow). I quit replacing them 20 years ago.

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