High beam headlamp use rates: effects of rurality, proximity of other traffic, and roadway curvature

Reagan, Ian J. / Brumbelow, Matthew L. / Flannagan, Michael J. / Sullivan, John M.
Traffic Injury Prevention (TIP)
April 2017

Objective: The few observational studies of the prevalence of high beam use indicate the rate of high beam use is about 25% when vehicles are isolated from other vehicles on unlit roads. Recent studies were limited to two-lane rural roads and used measurement methods that likely overestimated use. The current study examined factors associated with the rate of high beam use of isolated vehicles on a variety of roadways in the Ann Arbor, Michigan, area.
Methods: Twenty observation sites were categorized as urban, rural, or on a rural/urban boundary and selected to estimate the effects of street lighting, road curvature, and direction of travel relative to the city on high beam use. Sites were selected in pairs so that a majority of traffic passing one site also passed through the other. Measurement of high beams relied on video data recorded for two nights at each site, and the video also were used to derive a precise measure of the proximity of other traffic. Nearly 3,200 isolated vehicles (10 s or longer from other vehicles) were observed, representing 1,500-plus vehicle pairs.
Results: Across the sample, 18% of the vehicles used high beams. Seventy-three percent of the 1500-plus vehicle pairs used low beams at each paired site, whereas 9% used high beams at both sites. Vehicles at rural sites and sites at the boundaries of Ann Arbor were more likely to use high beams than vehicles at urban sites, but use in rural areas compared with rural/urban boundary areas did not vary significantly. Rates at all sites were much lower than expected, ranging from 0.9% to 52.9%. High beam use generally increased with greater time between subject vehicles and leading vehicles and vehicles in the opposing lane. There were mixed findings associated with street lighting, road curvature, and direction of travel relative to the city.
Conclusion: Maximizing visibility available to drivers from headlights includes addressing the substantial underuse of high beam headlamps. Advanced technologies such as high beam assist, which switches automatically between high and low beam headlamps depending on the presence of other traffic, can help to address this problem.

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