Have you noticed more vehicles around you driving with blown-out brake lights in the last few years? It’s no coincidence. New Jersey lawmakers have noticed it, too. They’re in the process of revamping current laws, which only require that two of a vehicle’s brake lights are working at a time, even though all modern cars are required to have three brake lights. To some, it may seem like a simple problem and a silly law. Unfortunately, the problem indicates a deeper issue: a change in how drivers across the state prioritize safety-related auto repairs now that state-required inspections no longer focus on mechanical defects. Is the convenience and cost-savings of doing away with safety inspections worth a potential increase in risks?
No longer do our state’s inspections stations make sure that our cars are safe to drive – which means some cars aren’t being maintained the way they should be. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Importance of the Third Brake Light
The third brake light has a technical name: Center High Mounted Stop Lamp (CHMSL). The inclusion of this equipment is no fluke, nor is it a mere aesthetic choice. CHMSL exist for an important reason that has nothing to do with style. Studies confirmed as early as 1974 that a third brake light contributes to reduction in the number of automobile accidents, according to the American Psychological Association, which states that using these devices “saves lives, property and money.”
Just how many lives and how much money? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s official report on the long-term effectiveness of the equipment, released in 1998, found that CHMSL reduce the number of accidents by 4.3 percent. While that may not sound like much, it translates to between 92,000 and 137,000 reported collisions and approximately 102,000 unreported accidents each year. The total cost savings is a whopping $655,000,000 annually.
So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
CHMSL are small, but effective. The NHTSA reported that these brake lights add just one pound of weight to a vehicle, and increase the cost by only $12. Photo Credit: Flickr.
What makes that third brake light so effective? There are a few reasons. The most obvious is that the more lights that indicate a car is stopping, the more likely it is that a driver – who, unfortunately, may not be paying full attention to the road – will notice at least one of those lights in time to avoid an accident. This especially true at night, when the two tail lights are already lit up for the purposes of being seen. That third light can help a driver determine if the car in front of them is actively braking, or just has its headlights on.
If the third brake light’s effectiveness was strictly numerical, who’s to say that there shouldn’t be a fourth, fifth, or tenth brake light? How do designers choose where to put that extra lamp – and is an unusual layout of brake lights, like this, a potential hazard? Photo Credit: Flickr.
A key part of the effectiveness of CHMSL is that center-high position. If you’re driving an unaltered passenger vehicle, sure, you can see the tail lights of the car in front of you. You probably can’t see the tail lights of the car in front of them, though. On a congested road, an inattentive driver in front of you may not notice the brake lights of the vehicle ahead until it’s too late to stop. This can create a domino effect or lead to those headline-stealing multicar pileups.
In this picture, you can see how much easier it is to tell that the large vehicle in front on the right – the one with a working CHMSL – is stopped than to tell that the large vehicle in front on the left, with no working third brake light, is stopped. Photo Credit: Flickr.
Timing is essential when it comes to effective use of brakes. Personally, I’d rather not leave the amount of notice I have entirely in the hands of the driver in front of me, who may or may not be texting, fiddling with the radio, yelling at rambunctious children in the backseat, or driving while impaired. That third brake light gives us drivers the opportunity to see (above or through the windshields of the car in front of us) what’s going on ahead. The invention and mandatory inclusion of CHMSL is empowering. It gives us more control over driving situations and, in the scenario where every precious second counts, it can help us prevent accidents.
That’s exactly why lax policies and laws could have a dangerous effect on New Jersey roadways.
New Inspection Policy: Safety
In August 2010, the state of New Jersey made sweeping changes to how the Motor Vehicle Commission handles state-required vehicle inspections. The average passenger car – incidentally, the kind you encounter most frequently on the road – no longer needs to pass a mechanical (read: safety) inspection every two years. In fact, it doesn’t need to pass a safety inspection, period. The required two-year inspection now checks emissions only. Additionally, motorcycles no longer need to be inspected at all, and new cars aren’t due for inspection for up to five years.
The change was made primarily to save money, which every cash-strapped government, state and otherwise, is struggling to do in the current economy. In fact, we’re joining the majority. Already 28 other states and Washington, D.C. have switched to emissions-only inspections to save a few bucks. It seems that you can, in fact, put a price on safety. In our state, it’s $11,000,000.
New Jersey doesn’t charge drivers for inspection at state stations. Collectively, the policy changes, such as ending mechanical inspections and delaying inspections of new cars, saved the state more than $11,000,000, according to NJ.com. The question is whether it’s worth trading our safety for the savings. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I’m all for funding only the programs that make a real difference to our state’s residents. There’s no point throwing money at a program that simply isn’t working, and that’s what some have claimed about the previous inspection policy. After all, only 6 percent of the 1,900,000 vehicles that the state inspected each year failed for “serious mechanical defects related to brakes, steering, suspension or tires,” the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission reported when it announced the policy change in 2010.
Let’s do the math. Six percent of 1,900,000 translates to 114,000 vehicles with serious safety-related problems. That’s right, the number of unsafe vehicles that mechanical inspections took off the streets, once upon a time, is precisely in the mid-range of the numbers of reported car crashes that having a third brake light can prevent. Yet one number is significant enough to make a mandatory across-the-board overhaul in the ways cars are designed, while the other is apparently so unimportant that it doesn’t argue for keeping a long-established safety inspection program.
And remember, that 114,000 figure doesn’t include the vehicles that owners would, in days past, take in for repairs because they knew they wouldn’t pass inspection with their bad brakes, balding tires, or glaring check engine lights. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Lost Art of Replacing Brake Lights
As of now, drivers aren’t in violation of the law as long as two of their brake lights are working, and they can’t be cited. But this law undermines the effectiveness of CHMSL. Having a nonfunctioning third brake doesn’t help drivers avoid accidents – if anything, an inoperative CHMSL can contribute to accidents by falsely indicating that a driver isn’t braking, even if he or she is. We’ve become used to seeing these third brake lights, and seeing an unlit brake light can mislead us, with dangerous consequences.
Back when mechanical inspections were part of the inspection process, a blown bulb could cause a car to fail. The owner would have to replace the bulb or risk the consequences of driving with an expired inspection sticker – which could be as serious as a $100 to $200 fine or even 30 days of jail time. Now, though, there’s no consequence for driving with a blown-out bulb, other than the increased risk of accidents that many drivers, unfortunately, won’t think about until it’s too late.
Even in this photo, there are at least two or three cars without a working third brake light. This is just a snapshot of what surrounds all of us during our daily drives. Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
You might view the push to create stricter laws as a direct response to the change in inspection policies and its consequences. “Since safety inspections in New Jersey were eliminated three years ago… many motorists are no longer making safety-related repairs,” reported WHYY Newsworks. If the new bill currently under consideration becomes a law, police will be able to issue a $47 fine to drivers of vehicles with only two functioning brake lights.
Proponents of the inspection policy change argued that “inspections are not necessary since many of the things that were being tested are already part of a car’s regular maintenance schedule,” according to Yahoo! Voices. The problem is that the people following the regular maintenance schedule and having their car regularly inspected by mechanics and repaired as needed aren’t the ones I’m particularly worried about. These owners were probably unaffected by mechanical inspections to begin with.
More dangerous are the automobile owners who, in the past, would neglect their cars until their two-year mechanical inspection date rolled around. Now that safety is no longer an inspection priority, do we believe that these same car owners will suddenly decide to become more responsible in maintaining their vehicles?
I don’t. Yes, it’s absolutely a driver’s responsibility to maintain his or her vehicle. However, the ones who don’t aren’t just putting themselves at risk. They endanger every person on the road with them, including our families. Blown brake lights are just the tip of the iceberg – what really worries me are the invisible problems, the ones that law enforcement can’t readily see from their patrol cars and that the average motorist doesn’t know or think to check, like the condition of brakes or tires. An out-of-order brake light might not serve the purpose of preventing accidents, but malfunctioning brakes can literally cause collisions.
To be honest, I don’t know if tightening laws on brake light requirements is the answer. The fine, though at the low end of the spectrum, could certainly be a rude wakeup call for any motorist who doesn’t know that his or her brake light is out. A better scenario would be for officers to first give drivers a warning and a fair amount of time to fix the problem. Yet an even better scenario would be for drivers to all take responsibility for maintaining their vehicle – but without the threat of a failed inspection, there’s simply no incentive to encourage the less-safety-minded to keep on top of problems and keep their cars from posing a hazard to all of us.
Will the threat of a $47 fine encourage drivers to replace their bulbs? And is such a fine fair, considering that you can’t see your own brake lights when you’re driving to know that your light is out? Photo Credit: Corbis Images.
As a driver and taxpayer, sure, I see the benefits of cost savings and convenience. With fewer features to check, inspections take less time and lines move more quickly. The value of saving $11,000,000 speaks for itself. As someone who spends every day working with accident victims, though, I have to admit that there’s something disturbing about the notion that we don’t need mechanical inspections. I care about the environment as much as the next person, but doesn’t the fact that we prioritize emissions checks over safety checks say something about our complete denial of how dangerous our state’s roads can be?