Car designers have gotten smarter about being safer, from finding ways to avoid collisions in the first place (anti-lock brakes, traction control, etc.) to the structure of the car and the materials used to help protect the occupants. Yet, somewhere along the way, a fundamental element of safety got overlooked—it is (still) possible to operate a moving vehicle at night with its lights off.

How is it possible in 2015 to put your car in gear with the engine running and your lights off at night? How is this an acceptable combination of parameters? My car won't even let me put it in gear unless the brake pedal is pressed. However, once I've passed that test, I'm free to accelerate as quickly as I want into inky blackness. How did such a key aspect of safe driving get left to a (forgetful) human brain? When would "unseeing and invisible" be the preferred status of a moving vehicle?

Given the combination of plentiful street lighting and light from surrounding signage, it's somewhat understandable that a lack of headlights might not be immediately obvious. A slightly inattentive or distracted driver might take a (literal) minute to realize they can't quite see where they're going or that the car in front of them seems a little dim.

Soon (if not already), tire pressure sensors will be mandatory on cars. Why, then, aren't automatic headlights mandatory?

There is a wise saying that goes a little like this: "people's behavior is almost impossible to change but one can change the environment in which people operate." In this case, the car should be smart enough to turn on headlights whenever the environment warrants it regardless of the awareness level of the driver.

Automatic headlights! Problem solved, right? No. Here's where we get into human behavior.

Some people don't trust automatic things. Even cars with automatic headlights still have "on" and "off" options. You are free to leave them on "indefinitely" (more on that in a moment) or leave them off when you feel like giving pedestrians the element of surprise. How do you convince people to leave their lights on all the time?

Rather than make people think they're wastefully using their headlights during the day, you give it a name, making the behavior acceptable: "daytime running lights!"" They're not "nighttime headlights on during the day", they're specially designed lights for daytime use! My lights are on during the day? Of course they are! They're daytime running lights!

The converse of this, of course, is that it is also possible (and easy) for people to leave their headlights on. A car which can determine its own position on earth within 15 feet is somehow not smart enough to turn off headlights to prevent killing its battery? Most cars will "ding" at you if you leave your lights on and open the door. (If the car is smart enough to ding at me for leaving the lights on, why can't it just turn them off?)

It seems crazy that the only requirement for such a fundamental and important mechanism to fail is human interaction.


Keep these coming. Send them to us via Twitter or Facebook using the hastag #wtfUX or email them to: with "#wtfUX" in the subject line. Include as much context as you can, so we get a full understanding of what the f%*k went wrong. Illustration of car courtesy Shutterstock.

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This feature is in many cars - but does NOT include back lights.  So as you are driving along at midnight your headlights may be on...but often times the back lights are not. Why would they make a feature that does not like them both.  Accidents and law suits are coming I promise 

Great article! I drive a '99 Toyota Camry and the only feature in the car relating to this article is that the lights will shut off when I turn the car off. I read somewhere years back that it is safer for everyone on the road to have their headlights on at all times so I have done so for years. The only time I turn them off is when I park in front of a business where my headlines would blind the guests inside. So yes, it would be amazing if the lights automatically turned off (or to a lower, less blinding setting) when I place the vehicle in park. Now if only there were a way to have cars anticipate when a driver is about to turn so that the turn signal will automatically turn on... 

Yesterday I disconnected the sensor to my automatic headlights. Lights that turn off when the car is off. Drove it Saturday, late afternoon, to mail something and pick up a couple lottery tickets, then home. Didn't use it Sunday. Monday around 11am it wouldn't start. Neighbor said I left the lights on as they were on at 5:30 am and getting dimmer. Light switch was off, parking brake set which prevents any lights from coming on by themselves when first starting the vehicle. No controls for the automatic headlights, so I popped the light sensor for it out of the dash and unplugged it. Now I have to use the headlight switch, but hopefully my car won't drain the battery for me. And if I leave the lights on, it will make noise and remind me to turn them off.

Wow. A spam comment barely related to the topic so poorly written as to require its own cognitive load... That is SO meta.

I'm sure it'll get deleted but allow us to marvel for a moment...

Minor or major troubles we have recognized in our vehicle after years of using. So we need to go for professional repair and service center to repair our vehicle; as we well-known with the fact that in our car most of the features are automated and handle by different links; in case if one link get failure den most of the automated systems are completely breakdown. Headlights are also one of them; it indirectly connects with starting button and battery, if both the systems are not working then automatically we have found some problems with the connection feature. Only a professional mechanic will understand the problem of any car, we are just going for driving and known about certain minor facts.

In Finland, where I live and which has an interesting, somewhat coldish and darkish (in wintertime) and very light (summertime) climate, this used to be a no-brainer for about three decades: you had to use lights (both front and back) all time while driving. All car manufacturers adapted their vehicles so that whenever the engine was running, the lights were switched on, regardless of the light switch position. so really, a no-brainer and very safe.

Enter European Union regulation harmonisation. Due to some insanity, the common EU rule is that only the lights in front must be turned on automatically, but the lights at the back are not. (Actually in front it is enough to have the low power daytime lights instead of the real headlights). As of now, all newer vehicles follow the EU regulations, and there are a lot of drivers who drive with just the low power daytime headlights and with absolutely no lights in the back for quite long when it is getting dark until they realise that they need to switch on the headlights manually (if they realise it at all...). This is especially horrifying in the summer evenings when we have several hours of time inbetween full daylight and darkness - you definitely need the headlights and especially the red tail llights, but it is easy to forget them as it is getting dark very slowly and gradually.

Weather conditions aside, just the cognitive load gets this into the wtfui category: for 30 years, you did not need to think about switching on the lights. Then you go and buy a new expensive vehicle and suddenly you are pushed back to the 70-80's



This is a great post. I wonder why this hasn't been implemented yet. It's so simple. It's interesting how automatic lights don't solve the problem because of the issue of trust. More than not being on during the day, I would trust my headlights to be on to their correct capacity at night without turning the dial to "full" manually. 

*wouldn't trust. (sorry, no edit button)  #UX

My '05 Golf GTi has auto headlights, if I leave the switch in 'auto' mode. Which I do, but you are right, I can leave them indefinitely off. I also have my fog lights come on when the handbrake is off and the main lights are not on as 'daytime running lights'. 

The car has a light sensor behind the review, so it obviously knows when to turn them on and off. It should be hardcoded on any car of high enough spec to get a light/rain sensor.

On my 2003 Subaru Forester the lights are always on and are activated by the hand brake being off. When they are on AND the headlight switch is on, they appear somewhat brighter than they do with the headlight switch off. I might have argued that I would need to replace headlamp bulb often, but that really isn't the case. Some form of headlamp improves safety during the day for visibility, so in my opinion the ability to drive at any time without a headlamp on should be eliminated. Taking away mistakes the driver can make, especially when it comes to visibility and safety should be a priority in my opinion.

This has bothered me for years. It still makes no sense to have Daytime Running Lights automatic and NOT have Nighttime Headlights automatic. This is a no brainer. You NEED lights at night. This should be automatic. Just turn them on! Epic fail my the automotive industry.

Daniel, I have some experience in the automotive industry and I can tell you that most automotive manufacturers that brand their daytime lamps as Daytime Running Lamps or Daytime Running Lights are actually a different lamp in the housing (and many times not even located in the same headlamp housing) vice the actual headlamp. This means, they are in fact "specially designed lights for daytime use". Furthermore, in many states on certain public roads and highways, state laws are requiring "headlights" to be used during daytime hours. Depending on the vehicle and options it has, even if you have an "automatic" setting on your headlamps you will have to override this to turn it on, unless you have DRLs. Lastly, there are several reasons why a person may want to "turn off" their automobile and leave their headlamps on, so it would not make sense for a strict conditional setting to turn off the headlamps if the engine is shut off. While it may or may not be an edge case scenario, I do think it should be accounted for.

While I love #WTFux based articles and imagery, I think this one was written with little insight into the industry it relates to.