Graphic by Jen Kelly

The Light at the End of the Speeding Metal Death-Box

The United States needs better regulations on rear car lights

The United States needs better regulations on rear car lights

There is a frightening flaw in American car design clearly visible during every trip to the grocery store. United States auto regulation does not require brake lights to be a different color than turn signals. They should be.

The colors and positions of rear lights may seem like a small detail, but it has deadly consequences. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 36,560 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2018. Given this statistic, one would hope we are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of drivers and their passengers.

Tight and statistically informed regulations on the auto manufacturing industry are important when making something so necessary but so dangerous for the modern worker’s everyday life.

The lights on the rear of a car are designed to do a lot of jobs, the most important of which are to indicate when the driver is braking, when they’re turning and when they’re reversing. Seeing as communication between drivers is one of the most important requirements of safe driving, these signals must be as clear as possible. A simple system designed to effectively communicate these three actions already exists.

A three-color system makes driver intent clear. Red brake lights indicate a driver is slowing, white back-up lights indicate a driver is reversing and amber turn signals indicate a driver will be mixing up their position a bit. This is where America stumbles. Back-up lights are required to be white and brake lights must be red, but turn signals can be either amber or red. Worse, they do not have to be separate from the brake lights.

Turn signal color and separation may seem trivial, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found in a 2008 study that cars with amber turn signals may be up to 28% less likely to be struck while maneuvering in a way that involves the turn signal.

A 1995 study by the same agency found reaction time to brake signals decreases significantly when the braking driver possess amber turn signals. This remained true even when the braking driver wasn’t using their turn signals.

Even using the most conservative estimates in safety increase, there is no doubt amber turn signals would save lives.

We’ve known for at least 50 years red lights aren’t the best choice for communication. Red light can appear to be further in the distance than it really is. It is also difficult for the human eye to see differences in red light intensity. A blinking red light is less noticeable than a blinking amber light, which is something that should be taken into consideration when creating fast, metal death-boxes.

There are more studies with similar results. The weight of the evidence for better turn signals is overwhelming. Most other countries require amber turn signals. Cars sold in the United States without amber turn signals have them in other countries. The United States and Canada stand virtually alone on this. The question is clear: why are American cars not required to have amber turn signals?

Is it cost? It’s tempting to think this is yet another example of the auto industry cutting corners. In this case, it’s probably not. Amber turn signals are not significantly more or less expensive than red turn signals.

Even using the most conservative estimates in safety increase, there is no doubt amber turn signals would save lives.

It could also be aesthetics. Nothing says boring like safety. The fear of death is just part of what makes driving exciting, apparently. We want sleek, sexy cars. Our most expensive cars look angry and aggressive. They aren’t designed to pick up kids or run to the store. They are accessories or fashion statements, not tools.

Maybe Americans just enjoy the freedom to refrain from changing simple things that would increase the quality of life for everyone around them. The rest of the world may do something in a way that’s objectively better and uses the same amount of effort, but we’re Americans and we’ll be damned if we let the United Nations tell us what to do.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Driving around Humboldt County, one wouldn’t know turn signals are mandated at all. If we do away with turn signals altogether, this isn’t an issue. American ingenuity triumphs again.

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