Since 1990, all cars made in Canada are required to have daytime running lights. I think this was done as a safety measure, since vehicles with lights on even during daylight are easier to see, but in reality it was a big mistake.
The idea is sound, because it’s true that cars with lights on are easier to see, especially around here where it’s overcast for 75% of the winter months. The problem is that many people think that having daytime running lights on is the same as having your full headlighting system on, and when it starts to get dark in the evening, they don’t think to actually turn their headlights on. This is a problem for two reasons: (1) daytime running lights are generally not as bright as full headlights, and more importantly, (2) when you only have daytime running lights on, you have no rear lights on, so people behind you cannot see you. Because the driver sees lights in front of him, he thinks his headlights are on and doesn’t think to actually check the switch. Some cars solve this problem by keeping the dashboard lights off unless the headlights are actually turned on, so when it starts to get dark, you can’t see anything on the dashboard. Other cars, however, seem to turn these lights on as well, so there is no indication to the driver that he should be turning his headlights on.
I can’t count the number of people I’ve seen driving in the dark with just their daytime running lights on. They’re called daytime running lights for a reason, people! In the past I’ve flashed my lights at them, but almost invariably, they think I want them to move over or something, so I rarely bother anymore. On a well-lit highway like the 401 through Toronto, it’s not that big a deal, but if you’re on a rural road, it can be very dangerous.
When I bought my first car in 1992, I got into the habit of driving with my headlights on all the time. Turning the headlights on when I started the card was just as automatic as putting my seat belt on. When I bought my Grand Prix in 1996, I got out of the habit because the car had a light sensor that would detect that it was dark enough outside, and turned the headlights on automatically. The only time I ever had to manually turn the headlights on was when it was very overcast and dark enough or foggy that I thought the headlights should be on, but the sensor did not. All three of our mini-vans have had this feature as well, so when I got my Sunfire three years ago, I was not used to having to turn the headlights on manually. Luckily, I do notice the lack of dashboard lights when it starts to get dark, so if I have forgotten to turn the lights on, I do it then.
I think that going forward, headlights on all cars should be on at all times when the car is in gear. The downside is negligible — the headlights are powered by the battery, which it itself recharged as long as the engine is running, so this is as close to free power as you’re going to get. You might have to replace your headlight or taillight bulbs more often, but in the 15 years that I’ve owned cars, the number of headlight or taillight bulbs I’ve had to replace is definitely in the single digits.
To my knowledge, no car on the road today has the headlights on all the time, so perhaps there’s a good reason not to do this. If that’s the case, I see no reason not to disable all dashboard lights unless the headlights are switched on, so that as I said above, the driver is indirectly informed when it gets dark that he needs to turn his headlights on.