car headlights and the implied horizon (long)

I have a long list of modern-world-anthropology topics that I want to get to. This post is about fear and about how our experience of daytime itself is changing.

Here in the USA, many people are now driving with their headlights on in the daytime, even if it is sunny. They call what they are doing 'daytime running lights' (DRL). They say what they are doing is safer. Others doubt the cited research. I summarize the arguments I have seen about this new instrusive part of the American landscape:

  1. the DRL studies were largely done in countries close to the Arctic, countries with different daytime light conditions than the USA, and too much reliance is placed one one study done in the USA decades ago

  2. if most vehicles have DRLs, it's harder to spot those who do not. Not to mention the pedestrians!1

  1. DRLers say the single study done in the USA is enough evidence for them

  2. some DRLers want what they call a 'DRL mandate' - a law which would make it illegal to drive in the daytime without your headlights on

the DRLers

There is unquestionably more going on than driving-safety concerns. Before getting into the cultural issues I will highlight the key question of headlight type. I would have thought this would be an obvious talking-point.

Years ago most cars were equipped with what were just called 'running lights'. These were used to make the vehicle more visible in bad light conditions like fog, dusk, and dawn. They did not illuminate forwards, and were almost always amber. The lack of projection and the color was designed to ease the eyestrain on the oncoming drivers.

DRLers do not seem to be very interested in seeing if the old-style running-lights would produce the same safety statistics found for DRLs in far Northern countries (and yes, maybe in the USA too). This is not very scientific of them, and it's a clear indication that driving safety is not their only concern.

Following DRL logic to its end, switching the amber brake-lights on the backs of their cars to high-beams would make sense. Maybe a study in Siberia could be done showing this reduced rear-end collisions! [sarcasm]

Just look at the extreme DRL trends. Some drivers add extra banks of headlights which they use in the daytime. Some even drive with their brights (high beam headlights) on all the time.

There are sufficient numbers of these true-believers that Honda apparently will be selling 2006 Civic and Accord models whose high-beams go on when the engine is turned on. Or you can buy a kit for this purpose.

DRLs can be annoying

An opponent of DRLing writes:
“Good bloody hell, so (most of) you're the murderous scum using headlights during the day. The idea is simple, make sure that YOU are seen but in the process make it harder for anyone else to be. Just part of the reinforcement of the concept that it's a right, not a privilege, to drive--drunk, drugged, blind, or extremely stupid. "Put your headlights on and you can safely make it home from the bar." ... I consider Charles Manson a saint compared to you evil pea-brains.”  [ellipted]  from 'putrid'

But people have always been selfish2, so the trend cannot just be about selfishness any more than it can be just be about driving-safety3. This is clear from the timing of the trend in the USA (right after the 9-11 attacks here).

it's about the horizon

In my opinion DRLers are trying to communicate to others that they do not feel safe, and they want the others not to feel safe either. It's an unconscious political movement, designed to increase the collective protection against all dangers.

I believe they are trying to hide the implied horizon.4 Simply by the act of driving back from the shopping mall the DRLers are wiping out the implied daytime horizon for everyone.

What I do not get at all, is why progressives do not oppose DRLs with all their might.
Over millions of years 'nothing from here to horizon' has been felt as meaning 'all is safe'. And much of the USA is flat. When driving thru these parts (in the daytime), the sky itself might make a driver feel relaxed and safe.

It's not that DRLers specifically want to eliminate this natural nurturance - it's just that they want .. something. Something done by collective will that will result in themselves feeling safer.

Which means .. goodbye to the pleasure of experiencing the daytime sky.

other wild possibilities

Before I decided this I considered a lot of other possibilities. The DRLers postition seemed that irrational to me. Among the idea I considered:
  • with so many working two jobs the USA no longer is so much a dayime-working culture. Could that be related?
  • do DRLers feel their headlights give them power in a God-like kind of way?
  • is it that they don't want to be so visible thru their windshields?
  • is it like a moth thing (with tranference), because they are lonely?
  • Could be related to the Rapture movement ('end times') .. DRLs do produce a kind of antiChrist ambience, right?

this is serious, folks

Even if half of this is wrong - even if driving safety is all DRLers are looking for - the use of these daytime headlights is profoundly changing the culture. In my opinion.

And not a value-free change, either. DRLs produce a daytime experience that meshes with authoritarian ways. Seriously. Think of the the cliché of baving a bright light on you as you are questioned by sinister police, or the cliché of having a bright light on you as you are trying to escape from prison. These are veridical, they are about fundamentals in human experience.

Or -to go on a tangent- think about the late Johnny Carson, 20th century America's most popular late night talk show host. Carson grew up in Nebraska and had a sunny dispostion characteristic of many from the region then. My claim is his friendliness in part came from being nurtured day after day as a child by the then-magnificent Nebraska sky and clear horizon. My claim is even that Carson transfered this sky-nurturance to the nightime 'airwaves' when his show was on. People felt safe when they watched his show.

If we allow DRLs as they are now it means no more Johnny Carsons. That's my opinion.

about the progressives (lwers)

What I do not get at all, is why progressives do not oppose DRLs with all their might. Popular progressive bloggers understand the relationship between collective fear5 and the popularity of authoritarian govts. The entire lw spectrum in America sees a cultural, authoritarian abyss opening up under their feet. So why don't they get the relationship between fear and DRLs?5

DRLs threaten the day itself, guys!

If you agree with what FDR said, that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself6- then logic impels you to be afraid of DRLs, if you also think DRLer's driving-safety fears have merged with other fears they have.

other relationships

That is pretty much what I have to say on this in basic terms. The rest is more abstract. Right now I am confident that:
  • DRLs are somewhat for the same reason they have been a tradition for funerals: someone is dead / people are reminded of their mortality / they want to remind other poeple of their mortality

  • the DRLer subset of the populartion has some interesting correlations that we don't know about since academics are not bothering to check .. Easy would be the prediction that DRLers roughly consist of some of the same people that believe SUVs are safer. The craziest correlation I will predict is that DRLers might roughly be those adults who did not ever try marijuana

  • the Rapture movement religous belief originated in places that had too much visible horizon relative to real dangers [Crime and empty landscapes is a weird combination]. Look at it this way: heaven-arriving formally matches horizon-arriving in the form of daytime headlights. . It is possible 'end times' operates at a cognitive level, a concept born from attempts by the animal to balance out the information coming in in terms of light itself [see also my post about Don McLean's famous song]

More could be said, but that will have to wait for another day.

the extended notes

  1. Not just the pedestrian statistics - accidents not involving DRLs (but possibly because of them) do not get recorded that way. An account of a car accident in North Carolina in 2004(?)
    “I *think* I'm OK, but was in a pretty serious car accident this morning.

    I was on my way to meet my wife at our son's new pre-school, was traveling about 40 mph down a hill in an area where I had unquestioned right of way. There was no traffic light, no yield, I was simply on a straightaway. There were several pickup trucks stopped at a stop sign ahead of me and to my right. They had been sitting there as I came down the hill, and all of a sudden as I got close, the lead truck pulled out to turn left in front of me (crossing in front of me to turn into the opposite lane). I *could not* believe it, I was going, as I said, 40 mph and was at this point *very* close to him. I have no idea what he was thinking. Anyway, I slammed on my horn, my brakes and tried to swerve around his backside to miss him... and I did. However, the pickup truck who had been waiting *behind* this genius at the stop sign decided to ALSO pull out in front of me to turn left into the lane opposite mine - he followed the original pickup so closely and without hesitation that it was almost as if he thought he was at a light and it had turned green.

    I slammed further on my brakes, but there was no where left to attempt to steer to to miss him - I hit him head on, perpendicular to him, in the bed area of his pickup. In the second before the impact, I thought 'Oh God, this is going to be realllllllly BAD.

    BOOM! The hood in front of me collapsed like an accordian, and both airbags deployed, and the windshield was cracked, but no blood, no cuts - my legs were not crushed as I expected them to be. ... The doctors think I have a concussion, but I feel ok so far.”  
    [heavily ellipted]
    The driver did not associate his mysterious invisibility on the road with his not having his headlights on. I remember someone asked him this later on and he said he did not have them on.

  2. Some people argue that selfishness has been increasing since the Reagan years.In my opinion even if this were true it would still not be enough to suddenly blossom into banks of high-beam headlights in the daytime

  3. Not to mention the complexity how people displace risk has never been widely understood. Properly understood, this also works against the use of DRLs. See the discussion of 'risk compensation' here or read this:
    “The key principle is that any safety feature will produce changes in behaviour: most people, as natural risk managers will barter some of the increased safety with perfomance enhancement, thus either negating the safety benefits or transfering the increased danger to other players.”
    From memory, one of just many instances of this was when NYC mandated its taxis get airlock brakes and accident rates went down -but only for a few months (eventually the drivers drove faster, since they felt safer with their new brakes). This effect is seen universally and will apply to DRLs.

  4. the implied horizon: In my opinion, when there are visual obstacles to the horizon modern humans make up an implied horizon, where it would be if the obstacles were not there. I am no expert but I think we feel comforted by a vista even while standing in a small town in the Midwest (minus the headlights). Even though there are buildings, the implied horizon is there as a universal comforter. This is why I inlude the 'implied'.

    Also I do not know if the symbol is at all passed from generations. ASFAIK for some of the ancient past humans lived on the savannah. During those epochs safety consisted of scanning the horizon for predators. This line in the distance -by my amateurish guess- has been internalized. Over millions of years 'nothing from here to horizon' is felt by us as meaning 'all is safe'. I do not know if each generation entirely relearns this.

  5. historical note: FDR said this on March 4 1933 on the radio, in his 1st inaugural address. I have seen it written that FDR said this two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed. But it is not in a transcript of his 12/9/1941 radio speech. So it does not seem FDR repeated himself. In 1933 was FDR talking in coded terms about authoritarianism? ..Read up on the period and make up your own mind.

  6. Nurturance is not political-spectrum neutral. And most progressives believe this. Often mentioned a semi-famous academic paper by George Lakoff, comparing the liberal 'Nurturant Parent' model to the 'Strict Father' model.