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Headlights required in rain and ‘limited visibility’

Tuesday, February 27, 2018by  Jon Osterberg

Heavy rainfall drenches a Northwest highway, limiting visibilty, which requires headlightsYou're driving on a highway mid-morning when a downpour drenches the pavement. Do Washington and Oregon laws require your headlights to be on? Yes – sort of.

Washington law says headlights are required any time "due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of one thousand feet."

Similarly, Oregon law says headlights are required "any time limited visibility conditions exist."

So heavy rainfall surely qualifies. The key phrases here are "unfavorable atmospheric conditions" and "limited visibility conditions." Aside from the obvious – dusk, darkness, and dawn – that would include fog, snowfall, and rainfall.

Many drivers believe the purpose of headlights is to illuminate the road. But the other part of the safety equation is that headlights allow you to be seen, as stressed in a recent Bellingham Herald article.

A Tacoma police spokesperson told The News Tribune in 2016 that there are zones in our mountain passes that require headlights during daylight hours because they increase the visibility of oncoming cars around curves. See, and be seen.

In nearby British Columbia, this isn't an issue. Since 1989, Canadian law has required that all vehicles must be fitted with daytime running lights that turn on once you start the ignition.

Perhaps most perplexing to Washington drivers is the part about being "discernable at one thousand feet."

Just what does a thousand feet look like, anyway?

Upper Multnomah Falls in Oregon drops 542 feetI always use the Space Needle as my gauge. The Space Needle rises 605 feet from the ground to the tip of its torch, and its observation deck is about 500 feet high. So if you drive down the highway and envision two Space Needles (minus torches) lying end to end, you're envisioning about 1,000 feet.

Sports fans, 1,000 feet is roughly the length of three football fields. Oregonians, upper Multnomah Falls drops 542 feet, so double that and you're in the ballpark.

I'll end on a cheery note. Rainy roads or not, have you noticed the days getting longer? Morning and afternoon commuters in Seattle and Portland now enjoy a 6:51 sunrise and a 5:56 sunset. And if you live near Spokane, sunrise comes at 6:32.

Daylight saving time is coming, folks, on March 11!

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