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Has your local council turned the lights out?

Man walking along a dimly lit road

So did you remember to turn your clocks back last weekend? The autumnal change will mean we’re feeling the dark even earlier, but could plans by your local council mean our lamp-lit streets are short-lived?

A report in The Telegraph this weekend explored how local councils are looking into either dimming, or turning out, street and road lights in a bid to save energy.

Around three quarters of the 134 councils who responded to The Telegraph’s survey had switched off or dimmed some lights or had plans to.

This is a challenging issue if you, like me, want to support initiatives to reduce our energy output but on the other hand, need to ensure our safety is not put at risk.

Walking home in the dark

I went through a stage of walking a longer route home because my local road was badly lit. On some occasions I would walk with a torch but was worried it might unnerve fellow pedestrians.

I was therefore delighted when I spotted my local council giving our local street lights a make-over. I assume they must have done something more significant than simply replacing the bulbs, as the entire lighting unit was replaced along the entire road.

I took the time to complete my local council’s online survey to provide feedback on the update – after whinging about my detour I thought I should acknowledge the work and say thanks.

Road accidents after dark

The report says 3,080 miles of motorways and trunk roads in England are now completely unlit and 47 miles of motorway now have no lights between midnight and 5am. The Highways Agency has today responded to the article to clarify that the total length of unlit motorways is fewer than 100 miles in total (98.4 miles).

The Telegraph asked the AA’s head of roads policy, Paul Watters, for his views:

‘We know that most accidents happen in the dark… it may save money in terms of energy but then you have to look at the cost in terms of security, safety and accidents, it may actually be more. We have even heard that some milkmen are having more trips and falls, so it has had some implications you might not think about.’

And the Highways Agency argues:

‘Evidence so far, from the first six sites where lighting was switched off between midnight and 5am, indicates that switching off the lights between midnight and 5am on these carefully selected sections of motorway hasn’t had an adverse impact on safety. Analysis also suggests no impact on traffic volumes or speed.’

Council cutbacks and street lights

I’m torn on this one really – I appreciate my local area being lit up for the safety of the community, but can see the appeal to councils if there are potential savings to be made.

Living in a block of flats, we all contribute towards our communal electricity bill for lighting outside. Funnily enough our communal electricity is more expensive than the cost of energy for our own flat, despite the fact the former is split five ways. Nevertheless, good lighting around the property is important to me, so it’s a cost I’m willing to pay.

So how do you balance energy conservation with safety? Would you be happy to see your local council dimming the lights or even turning them out completely? Are there other options councils should be looking into?


Where we live in Norfolk the County Council has been progressively adapting the street lights to switch off between midnight and 1 am for about five hours. In this mainly rural are there are no lights on most roads anyway. Small settlements usually only have one or two lights [if any] and these generally have not been affected. In the larger villages and market towns a sensible approach seems to heve been followed where the switch-off has concentrated on side roads but with lights left on at junctions, corners and the ends of cul-de-sacs. There has been extensive consultation and although there have been objections [which have sometimes been accommodated], and there are concerns about potential for misbehaviour and vandalism, there has been no major opposition to the change. Many people welcome the de-suburbanisation of the built-up areas and the return to the peaceful days when the streets were empty after dusk. In this public-spirited and socially-responsible corner of the country, a lot of people also have lanterns or floodlights outside their properties We already enjoy some of the clearest skies in England and seeing in the dark is not such a problem once you get used to it – in fact, even on a cloudy night like tonight, the full moon illuminates everything quite adequately. It’s a good idea to carry a torch but, as with car headlights, one should show respect to other people by reducing the beam if possible or dipping it more to the ground. Wearing something fluorescent is also recommended [plenty of horrific stuff in the shops right now ready for Hallowe’en!]. I have sympathy with the really early milkmen who are finding that many private drives and pathways into properties are very hazardous because of uneven paving, unmarked steps and poor maintenance – I predict a rash of accident insurance and compensation claims against homeowners. The lights should be back on by the time the paper-boys are about and the Royal Mail staff should be pretty safe with their 1.30 pm deliveries. Driving on unlit single-carriageway A and B roads is fairly tiring after dark if there is much other traffic; people will have to allow more time for their journeys, not drive for too long at a time, reduce their speed, and exercise much more caution. The worry is that some reckless people or show-offs will not.

Am I the only one thinking why can’t they use motion sensors on street lights (which get powered by stored solar electricity during the day). They and there neighbouring lights could them light up as when something bigger than a fox moves within the beams of the motion sensor. Hopefully that will save money by not being on all the time and give light when needed.

This is a good idea William. I have a feeling, though, that the kind of lamp fitted in street lights takes some time to reach full strength and does not take kindly to being switched on and off repetitively.

All they would need to do is leave the lights on for say 10-15 mins and adjust according to whatever data the smart motion sensor unit provides over a few months. I’m sure there must be better bulbs in existence than the ones you describe. FYI This is a work in progress idea 🙂

I’m sure Which? Convo subscribers could sort out 99% of the countries worries without much trouble. First the country, then the world Mwhaha. 🙂

The type of low energy lamps used in street lighting cannot be switched on and off for short periods. Some types are very difficult to switch-on again until they “cooled” down.
This is the downside of using very efficient lights.

I agree that for pedestrians low level lighting, maybe motion sensed, would be beneficial if focused on the pavement areas, but I suspect that this would involve a complete redesign of the lamp standards or an add-on. Maybe the cost of this would be more than the savings made by switching off the existing lamps in the first place.

Research has already been done into this, among others by people who fight against light pollution, and applied. You can balance energy conservation with safety not by simplistically switching off the lights completely (*) but rather by dimming them in the wee hours, and replacing old-fashioned energy-loving lighting that lights up the sky as well as the ground by energy-efficient lighting beaming in the right direction.

* This is unless lighting really is unnecessary, eg on some parts of motorways. In France for example some parts of motorways in the middle of the countryside simply aren’t lit, just like normal country roads, and this isn’t why there are more accidents in France than here.

With reference to our motorwarys, I think the D Telegraph was making heavy weather of this issue: rural motorways are almost entirely unlit except at a few major intersections. Most of us have to drive on rural dual-carriageway and single-carriageway roads with very little street lighting. Direction signs can only be seen with the use of headlamps. This is normal and there are very few serious collisions in rural areas attributable to highway design – intoxication, excess speed and incompetence [including drowsiness and distraction] are the main causes and will probably remain so. This change is far less suitable for urban and metropolitan areas so it is probably not going to happen there. During the Second World War, notwithstanding the low number of civilian motor vehicles and the restrictions on their use, the personal injury and fatality rate on the roads shot up in the blackout. I can’t believe town and city highway authorities will return to those conditions.

I’m glad they’re cutting down on universal lighting.

The general rule is to light residential and urban roads, and other roads where there are particular hazards – likelihood of fog, accident blackspots, some rural roundabouts, and so on. So councils that are looking to save money are removing lights from places where they are no longer justified. Most rural roads are unlit, and we cope quite well driving on those.

Switching “on demand” by presence detectors does not work with lights on main roads because,as has been said, the majority of the lamps used need time to produce sufficient light, by which time the vehicle has gone. There is more of a case in residential roads for pedestrians – primarily with LED lighting which does give full light output instantly it is energised.

Other ways than lights exist to mark hazards on unlit roads – LED road studes, illuminated signs, solar powered lights as well as conventional lights – at, say, junctions, tricky road layouts.

One reason to remove lights is to save the energy cost – a main road light can cost £112 a year in electricity, a residential road light around £32. But the other attractive saving is in maintaining the light and lamp post over the years.

With the running costs quoted, except for changing the time settings and switching off after midnight etc there is no financial sense in spending money and looking for a more efficient technical solution. £32 per year does not go very far !

In general, I don’t think there is any need for lighting motorways and I have always thought it daft to have a brightly lit section followed by a length with no lighting.

What does concern me is the increasing number of vehicles that have high power headlights. At one time, almost all cars had standard 55 watt dipped headlights but an increasing number have brighter versions or gas discharge lamps. These are bad enough when correctly aligned but downright dangerous when incorrectly set.

It has always been the policy not to light rural motorways except where hazards exist – such as likelihood of fog, or heavily trafficked junctions for example. The very heavy traffic on urban motorways has been regarded as requiring lighting generally.

Regarding headlights, I find their increasing use during all daylight hours can be very distracting. An EU requirement on new cars, and it is fine in principle to detect a moving vehicle, but it can be a glare source that is both distracting, and can impede vision of other hazards. In most circumstances ambient lighting is quite sufficient to see vehices; only in poorer light or poorer visibility are they really necessary.

John, you are quite right – there would be an increase in accidents (and crime) if urban and town areas were unlit, as in the war. However sensible local authorities will not do this – they will switch off in areas where the traffic is principally vehicles – roads on town outskirts and beyond for example. A sensible authority will install other measures at hazards in these areas – LED studs, reflective road markings, lit signage, or even lights at junctions for example.

We should have never moved from high pressure sodium street lighting. The orange colour is not very nice but the lamps are incredibly efficient and long lasting.

rarrar – you are quite right – the savings are not that great compared to the cost of replacing the light with one that is a bit more efficient. This is a dilema for local authorities, more easily solved when old street lights are life expired and need changing anyway. Sometimes it is political (in the “seen to be saving energy” sense) and is a feature of PFI Street Lighting contracts where the LA rents the whole installation from a commercial organisation. This always seems to me to be like all other PFIs – avoiding having to find capital expenditure but paying through the nose to rent your asset. Why on earth they don’t (or can’t) simply borrow the money at the low interest rates public bodies can get, and do the job themselves, I fail to comprehend.

wavechange – orange street lights. I don’t know whether you mean high pressure sodium, that are a whitish orange, or low pressure sodium that is very orange (monochromatic) and the most efficient of road lighting lamps.
In fact, vision research shows that at low light levels – as in road lighting – the eye is more responsive to light at the bluer end of the spectrum. Evolution of night vision under starlight probably. So the whiter lamps (High Pressure Metal Halide for example, and whiter LEDs) are better for vision.

Sorry Malcolm, I meant low pressure sodium. It costs so little to run, taking into account both power consumption. I appreciate the deficiencies but I would rather have this than no light at all in places where accidents occur.

Wavechange – Low Pressure Sodium was a little spurious in its efficacy – it was not designed for the low lighting levels where the white light sources are better visually. And for small installations at say hazardous junctions the energy cost is not that significant, so better use a 150W white light than a 90W yellow sodium. Also, the sodium lamp is large – like a fluorescent – so not good for directing the light onto the road area that matters. Its now becoming obsolescent. The lamps used now are high pressure sodium and metal halide, compact fluorescent and LEDs, largely off electronic controllers (ballasts) some of which can allow dimming and remote switching / monitoring.
The cheap option is to have no lights at all, and stay in after dark. Hope the LibDems don’t read this.

Hanging out washing to dry can be considered obsolescent but I think we will see more of this when people realise how much it costs to run a tumble drier nowadays.

I think my solution is better, though I can see scope for automated LED lighting in residential areas to provide light overnight.

I estimate our tumble drier could account for 8% of our electricity bill – our rotary clothes line in the garden is therefore far from obsolescent – in full use when the weather allows.
The issue I raised was that there are a number of solutions to enhancing safety at hazardous areas on primarily unlit roads. These include reflective road markings, LED road studs, lit signage, as well as local lighting. A good deal of work goes into identifying the appropriate solution. Bear in mind that many locations have no electricity locally, and solar cells may not always be adequate, or economical, in the worst short winter days to feed conventional street lights.
Regarding low pressure sodium vs others – what matters is the visual effectiveness of the light produced. Traditionally lamps were assessed for the normal eye response (at normal light levels, as in your workplace – photopic). The amount of light used for road lighting is very low, and the normal eye response to different wavelengths does not apply. Here the eye is much more sensitive to bluer light. At extremely low levels, orange low pressure sodium can be shown to be only 20% as effective (in some investigations) as the white metal halide, whereas at normal levels it might be twice as effective. At the in-between state of the eye for road lighting, it is not so extreme a difference, but still very substantially in white lights favour. Hence my comment that low pressure sodium is becoming obsolescent – apart from the disadvantages of its large size and absence of colour rendering!

Tony H. says:
7 November 2012

I find it curious that while the main article mostly stressed pedestrian safety (I infer from “bad guys” and perhaps bad paving, rather than from cars), the comments are almost entirely about driving safety. Clearly the second can affect the first, but the lighting requirements are very different: to make a pedestrian-friendly environment what’s needed are closely spaced lights focused on the footpath. They needn’t be too bright, must not shine into one’s eyes, and with good design they can be on low and much cheaper poles – about ten feet is enough to deter easy vandalism. And of course the energy expenditure can be very low with modern LED lamps.

To light the entire roadway (and the footpath by spillover as an afterthought) requires much higher poles, and they are therefore spaced further apart, and each light is very much brighter, and the beam spreads further out. But it’s very rare to find footpath lighting without roadway lighting, other than in entirely non-car urban areas, which are typically very bright from all sorts of mostly commercial sources in any case.

I am unconvinced about the need for roadway lighting at all on simple stretches of road away from junctions and such. Why should the accident rate be higher without lighting? Certainly other vehicles are very visible (other than some drunken idiot driving with no lights on at all, who is going to be off the road on his own before hitting anyone else), and cats eyes and so on make keeping in the lane quite easy.

The principles of lighting residential roads that you refer to are different from lighting traffic routes The focus is on pedestrians and property – lighting pavements to show hazards and enhance personal security, light adjacent property for security, with controlled light on the road to ensure drivers see hazards, including pedestrians, cyclists, children who might cross etc.

The light levels needed, and the way the light is distributed, have been carefully researched to minimise them, and typially will require a lamp power of 70W – less than your incandescent reading lamp. To achieve the coverage without glare we find lamp posts of 5-6m height are the most economical, spaced typically 30-40m apart. 3m poles would require at least twice the number, and would not cover the area properly. There would be twice the maintenance and capital cost. As street lights are fed of the public main electricity cable which is continually energised, the electrical connection when installing a light has to be done on a live and high-capacity cable – which costs typically £5-600.

On most rural traffic roads I agree that we do not need roadway lighting. Where it is useful is to show hazards, but other methods may be more appropriate and I have given examples earlier.

I am interested in how councils pay for the energy used, the lamps are unmetered so they must pay a fixed rate regardless ? Or is that a stupid question 😉

Anna – not at all stupid. Local Authorities have an Unmetered Supply User Group – UMSUG. Agreed charge codes are supplied to the electricity company with whom they have a contract and they are billed accordingly. The charge codes covers the power (watts) of different types of street lights. They also take account of hours lit (because they are switched by photocells or remotely maybe for different times). The council has to keep an accurate database of all its unmetered equipment and quantities for this to work.

Many thanks for the helpful reply Malcolm, I replied yesterday but it hasn’t appeared so trying again.