— Al Skeath, Allentown
— Bill Spangler, Fountain Hill
Q: Is there a law that drivers have to turn on their headlights at dusk? I often pass cars that don't have their headlights or any lights on when it's dusk or later, and I also see many cars in foggy, cloudy, rainy or snowy weather without lights. It is surprising. Doesn't the law require that you have your headlights on in those conditions? If so, why aren't police doing anything about it?
— Melissa Reid, Walnutport
A: Many motorists grind their gears about folks failing to use their headlights when visibility is poor, reporting examples of people driving at sunrise or dusk, and especially in the rain or in other low-light conditions, without going to the trouble of moving the headlight switch to the "on" position.
Other readers who consider headlight illumination a key to safe driving when visibility is restricted include Lee Patterson, Robert Schlegel, Peter and Sherry Farrell, Bob Yapsuga, Charlie Marple, Grace Dunbar, Louise Mesaros, Lee Adams, Fred Gross and Wendy Martinez, and maybe a few others that have slipped through the cracks in the floorboards.
Elwin Miller of Plainfield Township considers the matter important enough to warrant DUI-level enforcement, complete with roadway checkpoints and $100 fines. After being involved in a May, 2010 traffic accident caused by a motorist with wipers running but no headlights, James Conroy of Brodheadsville responded by creating bumper stickers like the one in today's photo to help get the word out.
On a similar road, Richard Cuff of South Whitehall Township determined on his work commute one rainy day last month that perhaps 3 percent to 5 percent of drivers with wipers running failed to have their headlights on. Cuff figured that 95 percent to 97 percent compliance "probably is not bad," but added, "all you need is one 'invisible' car to ruin your day," and suggested that PennDOT gas up its public-education effort by posting small placards beneath speed-limit signs reading, "Remember: Wipers On, Headlights On."
In a sense, Pennsylvania law has required for decades that headlights be illuminated when the windshield wipers are operating — though until five years ago, it was an indirect mandate, derived from Vehicles Law phrasing specifying that headlights must be switched on "any time when, due to … unfavorable atmospheric conditions, including rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, smoke or smog, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible to the operator for a distance of 1,000 feet ahead."
If the rain is such that you can't see a pedestrian or vehicle 333 yards (less than two-tenths of a mile) ahead, you'll almost certainly have the wipers running — and you must have your headlights illuminated. In fact, in that instance you could be cited for "no headlights" regardless of whether the wipers were running, and that provision remains in effect.
However, violators might be able to beat those citations in court, in part because police would have to prove the judge's satisfaction that the driver couldn't discern pedestrians or vehicles over the specified distance. So Harrisburg took action to make it as clear as a rain-free windshield, adding a subsection mandating that headlights be illuminated whenever the wipers are operating, period.
Section 4302 (a) (3), which went into effect Jan. 29, 2007, says the lights must be on "any time when the windshield wipers are in continuous or intermittent use due to precipitation or atmospheric moisture, including rain, snow, sleet or mist." (The "due to" phrasing exempts motorists using the windshield-washing system, in which fluid is sprayed on the screen as the wipers run for three or four swipes — good thinking by the folks in Harrisburg.) Daytime running lamps don't count; the "main" headlights must be on.
Violating the mandatory-headlights provision for any of the specified reasons brings only a $25 fine, but fees and costs can jack up the sticker price to roughly the $110 mark.
I couldn't get statewide statistics in time for the column, but state police at Bethlehem-based Troop M issued at least 17 citations for the wipers-headlights violation last year, according to state police spokesman Sgt. Anthony Manetta. A number of verbal warnings also are very likely, he said.
One other seasonal safety-related reminder: Don't let last week's unseasonably mild weather fool you. Old Man Winter dropped in Thursday to commence his usual three-month visit. State law mandates that snow and ice be cleared effectively from vehicles before they hit the road. If an accident attributable to flying ice or snow from a moving vehicle causes death or injury, it could cost the offending motorist an ice-cold $1,000 fine, not to mention whatever emotional toll might be charged.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.