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Back-seat Driver: I drove at night without headlights, oops

Apparently, I need my own back-seat driver.

Driving home from San Francisco last week, I exited at 34th Street, and thought, ‘Gee, this ramp is really dark.’ Then it dawned on me. I didn’t have my headlights on. I had been driving in the dark without headlights for ... how long?

The sun set, I think, when I was somewhere between Vacaville and Dixon. I could have caused a crash on the causeway.

Traffic was heavy, so I was sandwiched among a lot of cars, with a lot of ambient light. Still, how could I not notice? (Normally, you can tell if your dashboard functions are getting hard to see, but my dashboard night lights were on, which means at least the car’s daytime running lights were on.)

Could some other driver have warned me? I called Lizz Dutton of the California Highway Patrol and told her about my misdeed. What would be the appropriate thing to do if you see a driver at night with no lights on?

Flick your lights off and on to get their attention, she said. “Not the high beams, though. People don’t react well to that.”

Another question popped into my head. At what point during my ride did I become an illegal driver?

Interestingly, it turns out, it’s later than most people would think. The state Vehicle Code says you have to have your lights on during “darkness.” Here is how the Vehicle Code describes darkness:

“Any time from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise and any other time when visibility is not sufficient to render clearly discernible any person or vehicle on the highway at a distance of 1,000 feet.”

My fine would have been $238. I hear some new cars have sensors that automatically turn your headlights on. I need one of those.

There is the opposite situation, also dangerous, where a driver is coming at you with his high beams shining in your eyes. California law says you must switch from high beams to regular headlights when an approaching car is within 500 feet. That’s about two blocks. A driver also cannot use his high beams if he is following within 300 feet of another vehicle.

Speaking of night lights, there will be plenty of warning lights on Highway 99 north of Sacramento next week. Caltrans will be redirecting at Riego Road on Monday through Thursday to allow space for work on a new overpass. The northbound lanes will be shifted onto one southbound lane Monday and Tuesday nights from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The reverse will happen the following two nights, with southbound traffic flowing into one northbound lane.

Also, highway patrols in California, Oregon and Washington will be out on Interstate 5 this holiday weekend as part of a special enforcement effort, focusing on drunk driving, aggressive driving and seat belt use.

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