By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Minnesota would become the first state in the nation to require drivers to turn on their lights — night or day, rain or shine — under legislation sponsored by Rep. Kathy Brynaert of Mankato.
The bill, which would make it a petty misdemeanor to drive without lights, aims to reduce crashes by increasing the visibility of vehicles.
“It’s just one of those simple no-brainer sort of things,” said Brynaert, a four-term Democrat.
Brynaert sponsored the bill at the request of 88-year-old Skyline resident George Sugden.
“If that bill was passed, it would be a lifesaver,” said Sugden, a retired banker and part-time Mankato police officer.
No other states have a 24/7 requirement that vehicle lights be on, but lights must be used even in the daytime in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, according to a Minnesota Department of Transportation study. Across the European Union, any new vehicles sold beginning in 2011 are required to have automatic daytime running lights.
That MnDOT study is the only result so far of repeated efforts by Minnesota Sen. Ann Rest to require the use of vehicle lights at all times. Rest, DFL-New Hope, has been pushing the legislation since 2008 and received another hearing Monday in the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee.
Lawmakers haven’t been willing to adopt the idea yet, but they agreed in 2009 to require MnDOT to compile research on the impact of daytime light usage in crash rates.
“It did have a positive effect and benefit for safety,” Rest said in summarizing the report, which was completed two years ago.
Daytime running lights, generally low-wattage headlights, reduced crash rates by 5-10 percent in five studies. Three other studies showed crash-rate reductions of 3-4 percent. One study also showed a 12 percent reduction in vehicle collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists.
Some vehicles manufactured a decade ago or longer have a feature that automatically turns on some lights when the engine is started, a feature that is increasingly common. Rest and Brynaert concede that eventually the legislation might be moot.
“We can wait until all the old cars are off the road,” Rest said. “... Or we can be proactive.”
Brynaert’s House bill hasn’t been scheduled for a committee hearing yet, and she said she may wait until 2014 to make a major effort at passing it.
“We need some advocacy groups that would work with us,” said Brynaert, mentioning AAA or law enforcement associations. “... If we can get some support from them, I think we stand a decent chance of moving it forward.”
One previous source of resistance to the legislation was motorcyclists, who are already required to use their headlamps. The concern was that motorcycles would stand out less if all vehicles were using headlights, Rest said.
Opposition could also come from people attempting to maximize fuel efficiency and minimize bulb replacement, although the MnDOT report noted that a 2008 California study concluded that fuel savings would be no more than 1 percent if drivers turned off vehicle lights during daytime driving.
Sugden is confident any expense would be more than made up by the reduction in accidents.
“It’s nothing that’s going to cost anyone any real money, and it could save not only lives but damage to cars and everything else,” Sugden said.
The studies compiled by MnDOT bore that out. All showed that savings outstripped costs, including one that found nearly $2 in reduced costs associated with crashes for every $1 in expense created by 24-hour headlight use.
As for concern that police officers would be pulling people over for not having their lights on in the midday sun, Rest told Transportation Committee members that she would be willing to change her bill to make violation of the proposed headlight law a secondary offense. Unlike a primary traffic offense, a secondary offense can only be enforced if an officer stops a motorist for another violation.
“I’m more interested in a real education program on this,” Rest said.
Current Minnesota law requires lights “from sunset to sunrise; at any time when it’s raining, snowing, sleeting or hailing; at any other time when visibility is impaired by weather, smoke, fog or other conditions.”
Sugden, who was a pilot until giving up flying at age 81 and who was still directing traffic outside civic center events as an 85-year-old police reservist, said he keeps a close eye on traffic safety issues when he’s driving around town. Just this week, he noted that low-profile white vehicles were harder to see even on a bright sunny day — something that would have been alleviated if the cars’ lights were on.
As for concern that people would forget to turn their lights off and be faced with a dead battery when they returned, Sugden suggested a low-tech solution: a Post-It note reminder by the ignition stating “Lights!”