Driving safely in bad weather: Should you be using your headlights in the rain? Absolutely

It's not rocket science, but it seems our motorists may need a reminder.
It's not rocket science, but it seems our motorists may need a reminder. Photo credit: Getty Images / _Zekken / Reddit

New Zealand's roads can be tricky to navigate at the best of times - but with sleeting rain and gloomy grey skies, a seemingly simple drive can become potentially life-threatening if the correct measures aren't taken.

During wet and wild weather, driving can become particularly hazardous. Visibility is compromised, roads are slippery, and extra care is required to get to a destination safely. 

You probably already know to increase your following distance. You probably already know to adjust your speed to suit the conditions. You probably already know that rain requires windscreen winders.

But then why are a number of New Zealand's motorists forgetting the very simple rule of thumb: if you need your windscreen wipers, you also need your headlights.

Driving in downpour during the daytime without your dipped headlights on is arguably like wearing an invisibility cloak. Fellow road users are struggling to see you - and you are putting yourself and others at risk. 

In a post to the New Zealand subreddit on Wednesday, a person shared a photo of their wet window and wing-mirror, demonstrating the lack of visibility.

"This is all I can see in my mirrors when it's raining like today. Turn your headlights on in the rain!" they captioned it.

"I just finished a half-hour drive and I couldn't believe how many vehicles didn't have lights on. It's crazy. Even now I'm sitting in my car hoping for a slight easing before getting out and still probably one in 10 don't," one person responded. 

"Over winter I flash at least 10 people a day for not having their headlights on when they should. And I only drive 20 minutes a day!" said another.

"It's everyone's responsibility to improve visibility. Switch your lights on and make sure your mirrors and windows are clear," another agreed.

"People going around, 'But I can see the road, [the] sun doesn't set for another five minutes, it isn't pitch black yet' blah blah blah… well guess what sunshine, it's not about you... it's about everyone else on the road struggling to see your pale grey Nissan Tiida in the rain, the gloom or the grey overcast weather," one pointed out.

And they're right. Headlights are not just for the night. If you need your wipers, you probably should have your lights on too.

According to the Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), dipped beam headlights should be used during the hours of darkness and whenever visibility is poor. Because they are dipped, they can be safely used in all conditions without dazzling other road users.

A spokesperson told Newshub that headlights are a must in order to be more visible to other motorists.

"Driving with your lights on makes you more visible to other motorists in all conditions. Waka Kotahi advises that when travelling in fog, rain or snow, motorists should drive with their lights on and dipped (i.e. low beams) for increased safety," the spokesperson said. 

"Don't use high beams in fog, heavy rain or snow, as this will increase glare and make it more difficult to see the road ahead."

Waka Kotahi's Director of Land Transport, Kane Patena, agrees, telling Newshub that everyone using the road "should be able to get to where they're going safely, in every season".

"Conditions can change very quickly, so we encourage everyone to plan ahead, take extra care, allow extra time and be prepared for icy conditions and snow when driving in the cold," he said.

And for owners of modern vehicles, those daytime running lights are not good enough. They don't provide you with any extra visibility - they solely function to make the vehicle more visible to other road users during the daytime. You wouldn't rely on them at night, so don't rely on them during bad weather either. And according to NZTA, their low light output means they are "not bright enough to illuminate the road ahead of the vehicle".

And of course, staying safe on the roads during wet and wild weather also comes down to a number of other factors, such as speed, following distance, and having a safe vehicle in the first place.

Waka Kotahi urges people to check the latest conditions before driving on their Journey Planner website. at: https://www.journeys.nzta.govt.nz/traffic/

Here are Waka Kotahi's top tips for safe driving this winter.

What do I need to consider?

  • be prepared for safe winter driving by planning your journey
  • check traffic and travel updates on NZTA's journey planner before you leave, or phone 0800 44 44 49
  • think about where you're going and what route you should take - choose safety over convenience
  • consider if you really need to travel, especially if the weather is poor
  • always check the weather forecast.

What should I do on the road?

  • drive slower than you normally would - it only takes a split second to lose control in wet or icy conditions
  • avoid sudden braking or turning movements that could cause you to skid 
  • accelerate smoothly and brake gently
  • use your highest gear when travelling uphill and your lowest downhill
  • for vehicles without anti-skid braking systems, to avoid skidding or sliding pump the brake pedal in short rapid bursts rather than pressing long and hard
  • drive at a safe travelling distance because it takes longer to stop on slippery roads. In winter, especially in poor weather, double the two-second rule and leave a safe distance between you and the car you're following
  • when travelling in fog, rain or snow, drive with your lights dipped for increased safety.

Always remember

  • drive to the conditions
  • allow greater following distances on frosty and wet days
  • be prepared for any delays - dress for the conditions, have warm blankets, bottled water and emergency rations in your vehicle
  • obey emergency road closed signs and barriers
  • follow the directions of any road patrol or police officer
  • avoid towing in icy conditions
  • road closures and restrictions are put in place for the safety of road users like you and the staff who work on them. It is against the law to drive on a closed highway. If you choose to ignore closures or restrictions, you do so at your own risk and it voids your insurance.

If things go wrong

  • in the event of an emergency, dial 111
  • for mechanical breakdowns, contact your breakdown service provider
  • if you want to report or check current road conditions on the state highway, call 0800 4 HIGHWAYS (0800 44 44 49) or check online at www.journeys.nzta.govt.nz
  • if you do get stuck, stay with the vehicle and keep everyone warm until help arrives
  • if you are involved in a crash, tell the police even if no one is injured. This type of information helps us to make improvements to the road where necessary.