WINDSOR, Ontario-To a mid-afternoon visitor from the United States, the streets of Canada's Motor City might seem strangely aglow. The sky is shadow-casting bright, but on car after car, headlights shine. It's not a funeral, convoy or custom-it's Canadian law. And the phenomenon, if not the law, is coming to the U.S.
Cars and trucks sold in Canada since the 1990 model year have been required to have ``daytime running lights,'' known as DRLs. Their headlights shine at low intensity whenever their engines are running. On some, DRLs are separate from the headlights.
The theory is that the lights help prevent collisions by making the vehicles easier to see.
``The research on whether or not daytime running lights are effective is mixed,'' said Ed Lechtzin, General Motors Corp.'s director of legal and safety issues. ``But we think there's enough evidence at this point to show that it...makes vehicles more visible to other drivers.''
GM announced in February it will build DRLs into more than half a million 1995 model year cars and trucks. You'll first notice them on Chevrolet Corsicas and Berettas, S-series pickups and Geo Metros, Mr. Lechtzin said. By the '97 model year, all new GM cars and trucks will have DRLs.
Some U.S. industry and safety officials say the theory needs more testing. And some suggest that GM's motivation is sales, not safety, at a time when airbags, anti-lock brakes and built-in child seats are touted in new-car advertising.
Whether for sales or safety, GM's decision should help determine the lights' effectiveness.
``It's kind of a big fleet study,'' said Barry Felrice, associate administrator for rule making at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates safety devices in U.S. cars and trucks and last year made DRLs possible by overriding any state laws barring them.
``Intuitively, we think it makes sense,'' he said, but NHTSA isn't ready to consider requiring DRLs until there is more U.S. experience with them.
Transport Canada, the Canadian government transportation agency, expects to release results of a study of DRL effects soon. Eric Welbourne, chief of vehicle systems for the agency, wouldn't discuss details. But he said the research found that daytime running lights have reduced the number of two-vehicle, daylight traffic accidents in which the vehicles are traveling in different directions.
Swedish automaker Saab has been building its cars with DRLs since 1968 but disconnecting them for the U.S. market. They are required in several Scandinavian countries. Swedish studies found DRLs reduced the number of some types of crashes by up to 20 percent, Mr. Welbourne said.
Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co., like GM, have been building DRL-equipped vehicles for sale in Canada since 1989. But neither is ready to immediately follow the lead of the No. 1 automaker.
``We're doing a marketing study to see how customers will react,'' said Robert H. Munson, Ford's executive director of safety and engineering standards.
Noting a concern that consumers might dislike DRLs, Chrysler said market research shows no strong demand for them.
Other potential negatives include:
Glare-This should not be a problem with the technology now being used, automaker and government officials said. Modern DRLs use a vehicle's lighting control computer to burn the filament of the headlights' high beams, but at a much-reduced intensity, thus eliminating burnout and glare potential.
Cost-None of the automakers will give exact estimates, but GM's Mr. Lechtzin said the cost per vehicle would be under $10.
Fuel economy-Adding any option that uses power means a car burns more gas. DRLs reduce fuel economy ``a fraction of a mile per gallon,'' said Brian O'Neill, a proponent of DRLs and president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research agency financed by the U.S. auto insurance industry.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to let GM do the required fuel economy testing for its cars with DRLs turned off.
There is one glitch no one is considering.
How can you run your car to get air conditioning or heat at drive-in movies if turning on the engine turns on running lights?
``Are there still drive-ins?'' Mr. Lechtzin asked.
Mr. McKesson is an Associated Press automotive writer.