Researchers Have Been Talking About Front Brake Lights For Decades. Here’s What I Think

Topshot 15a

Picture this scenario. You’re strolling through Manhattan about to cross Fifth Avenue when you see a car barreling along towards the intersection. The WALK light for you is illuminated, the car has a red light. The driver sees you, right? Or, the self-driving system in that car is picking you up? I’m not gonna die if I cross the street now, right? How do you know for certain?

How about this next situation? There’s stopped traffic on I-95, and you’re the last car in the backup. In the rearview, you see a car approaching at a rather high velocity. They’ll stop, right? Or do I need to punch it and get onto the shoulder RIGHT NOW?

Cinema Shooting (6034581460) 1

source: Wikipedia and topsize20

The simple answer is that, unless the car in question is a softly sprung thing that buries its nose in the asphalt on hard braking, you just can’t tell. Unless the car has those moving eyes like Jason has reported on, but that doesn’t mean the thing is stopping. What about front brake lights?

Yes, that’s right. Something on the front of the car that can tell people in the path of a vehicle that yes, the driver/car is in fact slowing down.

The idea for this is hardly new, the earliest example I see being from the late sixties. There is a plastics manufacturer called Rohm and Haas, and in the late sixties they were pushing to get their plexiglass technology applied to automobiles. Ultimately, the idea was only implemented (with great difficulty) to one car- the Bricklin SV-1. However, to promote this technology Rohm and Haas made show cars that featured not just their innovative plastics, but futuristic design features as well. Note the lighting on this thing:

WARNING: The following images could cause extreme arousal if your name is Jason Torchinsky

Picture1 A      

source: flickr

Note the blue front brake lights next to the (equally high visibility) turn signals above the windshield.

A later show car (below) had the blue brake lights above the headlights.

This one even had a green light in the back to show that the car was accelerating! If you scroll though the link to the brochure..it has a bunch of other insane features like a roll out trunk:

Screenshot (74)

source: flickr

More recently the great design Godfather (or is that Golf-father…HA!) Giorgetto Giugiaro has been a proponent of these.  Note his comments on one of his concept cars that he designed not that long ago:

“See the brake lights at the front?  It means pedestrians know when you’re slowing down at crossings!”

Gfg Style Sibylla Gg80 Concept Front

source: Rutdger Van Der Maar/Flickr

There’s even a website devoted to front brake lights (which seems to suggest a green color on the grille).

[Editor’s Note: This appears to be some kind of German research organization assessing the feature’s value and its regulatory viability; just look at all these Germans talking about front brake lights (“Vordere Bremsleuchte”) at a conference in Belgium:

Screen Shot 2022 10 05 At 4.52.47 Pm
image: frontbrakelights.com

The organization introduces the technology’s purpose on the website’s home page, writing:

Given the complex triangular relationship between human, vehicle and environmental factors, advances in traffic safety will always have to encompass a variety of innovations. One of these could be the front mounted brake light, a forward-facing lighting device that illuminates simultaneously with the rear brake lights and tells on-coming road users that the car is braking.

The home page continues, discussing the main potential benefits of the tech:

The catalogue of possible applications of a Front Brake Light includes multiple cases to improve communication between road users and thus ensure greater traffic safety. Such cases are by no means limited to asymmetric conflicts (e.g. vehicle / pedestrian). Also in a vehicle / vehicle constellation the Front Brake Light has potential to avoid collisions.

Main benefits of a Front Brake Light are expected to be

  • Prevention of collisions in specific situations
  • Reduction of the severity of accidents by its warning function
  • Road user communication issues (esp. with electric and / or highly automated vehicles)
  • Reduction in stress whilst driving

The site even includes a research paper written by some of the people in the photo above. Titled “Potential safety effects of a frontal brake light for motor vehicles,” it begins with an abstract highlighting the point of this whole discussion:

The number of pedestrian casualties in crashes with motorised vehicles is still alarming. Misunderstandings about the other road users’ intentions are certainly one contributory factor. Especially given recent developments in vehicle automation, informing about ‘vehicle behaviour’ and ‘vehicle intentions’ in the absence of any direct interaction between the driver and the outside world is becoming increasingly relevant. A frontal brake light which communicates that a vehicle is decelerating could be a simple approach to support pedestrians and other road users in the interaction with (potentially automated) motorised vehicles. 

The paper includes some kind of video-based research that concluded, with a number of caveats about the setup, that the light helps pedestrians more quickly determine when a car is slowing down: 

The results of our investigation indicate that the use of a frontal brake light can lead to considerable improvements in the identification of a vehicle decelerating. This, in itself, is not surprising. The extent of these improvements, however, is remarkable. For example, without a frontal brake light, the identification of a rather average deceleration (3.5 m/s2 ) that started at a typical approach speed (50 km/h) took a full 1.5 s longer than with the light. This technology, therefore, has obviously the potential to speed up decision processes with regard to pedestrian crossing decisions. In general, any road user ahead, e.g. another car about to make a left turn across our vehicle’s lane, might benefit from the information. It has to be acknowledged, however, that the chosen laboratory setup and the video material that was used reflect only parts of a natural crossing situation.

Here’s a plot from that paper:

Screen Shot 2022 10 05 At 5.07.00 Pm

The German front brake light advocates mention on their website a 1971 study by the Highway Safety Research Institute at the University of Michigan. Titled “SUBJECTIVE EVALUATION OF THE FRONT-MOUNTED BRAKING SIGNAL,” the paper includes the following conclusion based on surveys conducted of laypeople and of people who had driven for a month cars equipped with experimental front brake lights:

1. Some subjects felt that the front brake signal had some utility as a means of increasing inter-driver or driver-pedestrian communication.

2. The findings of this preliminary investigation suggest that a more comprehensive evaluation is warranted.

3. Objective evidence should be provided that a front brake signal will provide a greater margin of vehicular safety.

4. A study should be conducted using test vehicles to determine how this added signal will affect the performance of other drivers and pedestrians. For example, a driver whose vehicle is not slowing down may tap the brake pedal when approaching an intersection and find cars pulling out dangerously close in front of him, because the other drivers assumed that he would make a right turn.

5. If such a signal should be found to be valuable it would probably be necessary to conduct a public education campaign to explain its function.

There’s even discussion about the right color and location of a front brake light:

The preference of the non-users was for a red-colored grille located “front brake light.” This preference was apparently modified by use of the forward brake signaling unit as users indicated a preference for an amber light located on the windshield. It is evident that persons unfamiliar with the forward brake signaling concept did not consider the amber color and windshield location to be obviously appropriate. Thus, a conflict exists between initial preference and the effects of exposure to an alternative color and location. It should be noted that at one time blue was considered an appropriate color for a front brake light (Fisher and Bostwick, 1968) .

And there are notes on what the subjects who used the lights for a month thought about the light’s purpose, its brightness, its flaws, and more: 

Screen Shot 2022 10 05 At 5.10.07 Pm

Anyway, back to our daydreaming designer, The Bishop. -DT]

Dsc9007

source: Front Brake Lights

So what do I propose? I don’t think this light should be mounted among the other lighting at the front of the car.  You might not see it (I barely see the one on the BMW above) and it will be obscured by daytime running lights.  So, basically I’m imagining a CHMSL (Center High Mounted Stop Light) at the front of the car.

Actually, it would probably have to be two, since in many cases the center of the windshield is filled with rear view mirror and driving assist cameras. I’d like to see red, but are there laws against that? Likely, but laws can change, and red really does mean stop. Having it high up and aimed at sort of an angle would keep your hood from getting a red glow from the lights.

Topshot 15b

source: Tesla

One other thing. I don’t know if this should be wired directly to the brake lights in back, and here is why. The idea is to show pedestrians and other cars that you are stopping. When at a standstill or, worse yet, sitting in bumper to bumper traffic with everyone on the brake pedal, that’s a lot of red light (or blue light or whatever) to be shining in your rear view mirror or camera.

[Editor’s Note: It’s worth mentioning that the German organization running “Frontbrakelights.com” addresses both why it thinks green would make for the right color, and how the system would wire into a current vehicle’s electrical system:

A Front Brake Light must be regarded as a light-signalling function (LSF) within the meaning of authorization[1], as a version with a lower light intensity would not be fit for purpose.

For the conception of a new LSF on motor vehicles, there is always the question of the appropriate light colour to be used – as well from a legal as a factual point of view. As other colours are legally assigned already to special situations and / or special types of vehicles, choice is left between green and white.

Given the already existing high number and range of variation in forward-acting white light signals (dipped beam, high beam, fog lights, etc.), the use of a white Front Brake Light could result in ambiguous information being received, thus nullifying its benefit for traffic safety.

The colour green, however, is not used for LSF on motor vehicles yet, but therefore offers the advantage of unambiguousness and fast signal identification. Furthermore it is well known in road environment (i.e. traffic signals) and for purpose of a Front Brake Light will also be supported by psychological points of view against other colours, especially red.

It is assumed that the Front Brake Light is linked directly to the rear brake lights and thus only one more device must be connected to otherwise identical circuits in the control unit(s). With regard to the design of a Front Brake Light, a number of variants are conceivable, depending on the type of vehicle and its vehicle design.

Therefore implementing a Front Brake Light within existing technical conceptions of vehicles is most easy from a technical point of view.

-DT]

I think the light itself could work similar to something BMW has done (and others likely as well) called Brake Force Lights. What this involves is essentially taking the red lights that are used as rear fog lights overseas and wire them up so they illuminate when heavy brake pressure is applied (probably when ABS is engaged). They then turn off and do not light up in normal braking.

Screenshot (75)

source: BimmerForums

These front lights would illuminate only on moderate to major deceleration (remember, EVs can stop without brakes) but then turn off after five to ten seconds of the car stopping. [Editor’s Note: Or you could wire them up to an accelerometer, and have them illuminate when there’s a certain rate of change of velocity. -DT]. 

Teslamodels

source: Tesla and The Bishop

Do we REALLY need more lights on a car? I would argue that we do, especially with the advent of self driving cars and virtually everyone wondering if these will work or if they are gonna go Maximum Overdrive on us (terrible movie).

What do you Autopians think?

 

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53 Responses

  1. I think new cars need lots more lights. Lights that indicate if the lights are on, Turn signal lights on BOTH sides that indicate the car is about to turn, lights on the roof (like pickups), lights UNDER the car when the pavement is rough, I just cant think of more examples right now, but we need lots more lights.

  2. The biggest problem I see with this overall rather good idea is that it would take absolute ages before you could believe the signal. The average car on the road in the US is 12-13 years old, and that’s just the average—half are older, some by a lot.

    So if this was implemented tomorrow, in 2035 it would still be 50-50 whether or not a car coming up behind you with no front brake light lit was about to rear-end you, or just too old to have front brake lights. It would be meaningless.

    Even a full human generation later, you’d have people freaking out and doing emergency evasive maneuvers when approached from behind by someone in a classic car from before the time of front brake lights. That would be downright dangerous.

    The only solution would be to require that they be retrofitted to all existing cars, which is something I don’t think has ever really been done for a new safety feature. I guess it wouldn’t be impossible, but it sure would be weird.

    1. Halftrack- I mean, CHMSLs came out and we didn’t have to retrofit older cars, but admittedly there was still as set of brake lights illuminating. However, it is funny how when I follow cars with burned out (typically incandescent) CHMSLs it sometimes takes me a millisecond more to register that they are stopping.

        1. bertfrog- I still think it should go about the windshield. Maybe a row of lights that cycle back and forth. It would actually be like the lights below the screen on the bridge of the first Startrek Enterprise. Just wish it would make the same noise as that.

          or that WHOOSH WHOOSH that KITT made

      1. I do think that’s a very different scenario. CHMSLs just emphasize a signal that everyone already expects. Like you said, even if the CHMSL is absent or inoperative, the rear brake light system still works—albeit in a slightly degraded state.

        A FMSL (see what I did there?) would be a whole new signal, whose absence meant either that the car wasn’t stopping or that the FMSL was absent/broken. A solution that I just thought of would be to have one light for not-braking and a different one for braking. Say, a green light if the car’s brakes are not applied, and a red one for if they are. In that case, no light at all could only mean a missing or broken FMSL system.

        1. Halftrack- also my bigger concern (and likely a lot of people’s) isn’t current/older cars. It’s the new fully self driving cars. As much as I dont trust other drivers I trust self driving tech even less right now, so the lights would be ideal to let me know the sensors see me and know to stop.

          1. Sure, I get that, but when it’s coming up behind you at 60 mph while you sit stopped dead at the back of a traffic jam, how long do you want to spend squinting in your rear view mirror, trying to decide whether AI (or driver) in the car bearing down on your butt is out to lunch, or whether it’s just a slightly older version from before front brake lights existed?

            Is that last year’s grill treatment, or just the base trim level? Did they offer that shade of gray two years ago? Wait, when did that car get front brake lights anyway? WHAM!

            1. Halftrack- if something is bearing down on me that fast and I don’t see lights I’m getting out of the way regardless of the year of car and if the car is equipped with FMSLs (I like that, BTW) or not. Period.

  3. As long as these lights aren’t red. I’m not kidding you when I say that last week I was in front of some moron who decided it was a great idea to use red lights as DRLs or fogs on some crapped out civic. Did it ever cause confusion to everyone in front of him – looked like he was driving the wrong way.

    1. I think they likely would be a different color, but I really do think they should be mounted high up for the same reason CHMSLs are, especially with cars with Daytime Running Lights. A green light in the grill isn’t gonna do the job.

  4. This would be even cooler if (given the lead time it’ll take to get this into law) it’s coupled with mandatory sounds of some sort.

    I’m still amazed that we’ve had hybrids for as long as we have and there’s no requirement that cars make some sort of external noise.

    I can see fine and it still creeps me out when I hear only the crunch of tires on the road behind me as I’m walking along…I can only imagine how unnerving it is for the visually-impaired as we head toward mass, mostly silent EVs on the roads.

    Also, this concept is wonderfully Blade Runner, so yes please on that alone!

    1. Jack Trade- They typically have a noise when reversing, but I agree that they should make noise when moving forwards, at least up to a speed of around 15-20mph when tires and such will create an ambient sound.

      Like that drug dealer in the show ‘Weeds’ said when he borrowed a Prius- “I like that it’s quiet- easy to sneak up on mutthafukkas’.

      1. Or when Andy beat Dwight in their fight over Angela…as Dwight reads his distraction note, back toward the parking lot.

        Oscar: “if he stays under 5 mph, Dwight won’t hear him coming…that’s smart.”

    2. There is a sound requirement for hybrid/electric vehicles. There are several requirements both in volume and frequency content, as well as a frequency component that increases with speed. The effective date was 2018 so anything newer than that makes noise up to at least 30 kph. I’ve ran probably hundreds of these tests for different manufacturers.

      https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/02/26/2018-03721/federal-motor-vehicle-safety-standard-no-141-minimum-sound-requirements-for-hybrid-and-electric

  5. I think it’s a great idea, but I’m in favor of the green lights for the front brakes. Here’s my reasoning: the lights are red in the back because they are telling drivers behind you that they need to stop. They are green on the front because they are telling pedestrians and cross-traffic cars that it’s safe to go in front of you.

  6. zrpm- I would HIGHLY recommend that you to click on the link to the brochure in the article. Those concepts are packed with crazy features, most of them silly, all of them very 1960s, but a few seem like interesting ideas.

    1. Oh, wow. The instrument panel! The roll-out trunk! This thing is magnificent! A cursory search led me to a decade old forum post claiming that this company originally used Corvairs to build their concepts around and later moved to the Ford Torino chassis. I obviously have no way to verify it but could very much see that being the case from the brochure images. I can’t help but wonder if any of them survived.

      1. It’s amazing to me that these cars were supposed to show plastics technology but they went way overboard with showing other cool concepts that if anything outshone the body material idea. They’re not a car company so it was just to get attention.

  7. For years I was aware of, and occasionally drove past, a Rohm and Haas plant located in Bristol, PA. Never knew exactly what they manufactured, or that they had a presence in the automotive industry. Pretty neat.

  8. A front brake light would be great in my opinion. I also like the idea of brake lights that show how hard someone is braking, like the flashing ones they use in Europe.

    It drives me crazy when I am coming up on an intersection and I cannot tell if a car coming from the side street is actually going to stop. If people would not wait until the last moment to slow down for stop signs it would help, but I don’t suppose we are going to get people to stop that.

  9. Well, my name must be Jason Torchinsky…

    But more seriously, what if there was a way to combine front brake lights with the “line-of-sight” concept that was tested with the eyes? The way I can imagine it is like a KITT style scanner bar on the front of the car that lights up when the vehicle is braking, but concentrates the light where ever the sensors are detecting movement or pedestrians. I’m not a designer, but it’s just a thought.

  10. Italy did consider mandating the front brake lamps in the 1980s. Two reasons: pedestrians doing suicide run and drivers participating in the Death Race 2000. Many times the pedestrians don’t bother waiting for the traffic to stop before waltzing across the pedestrian crossings or checking to ensure the vehicles actually slow down and stop. Sometimes the drivers don’t bother to stop for the pedestrians. Both are very common in the rural areas and elevated Italy to the first place on the pedestrian death chart in European Union.

    Driving in Italy for five days aged my father twenty years. He vowed not to drive in Italy ever again.

    1. Eric- like anything, the lights would not be a cure-all. Just like turn signals and current brake lights (are they really stopping or two pedal driving?) you have to use judgement as well, but it at least gives SOME indication that the driver or car at least knows you’re there. No lights means I ain’t walking or I’m getting the hell out of the way.

  11. I think this is actually a bad idea for pedestrians. When crossing the road as a pedestrian, I sometimes see polite people in cars stop and wave at me to cross in front of them. On a multilane road, I generally refuse, and wave at them to continue on. The issue is the polite driver disarms the pedestrian, making them think they are safe to cross when it might not be. That polite driver can’t control other drivers in other lanes, and the pedestrian often can’t see the cars in the other lanes if there is a line of traffic behind the polite driver. This increases the chance the pedestrian, believing it’s safe, gets smacked by the car going full speed in the next lane over beyond the polite driver. Cars in that adjacent lane often don’t have a view of a pedestrian crossing from the other side.

    1. I agree that drivers shouldn’t stop in traffic to let pedestrians cross (and pedestrians shouldn’t be crossing traffic randomly), but they should stop at crosswalks and stop signs and signals, even though sometimes they don’t. Having an indication that they actually are stopping would be a good thing, IMHO. Related: when I was stationed in Turkey, one of the first things they told us about driving there was “When a pedestrian steps out into heavy traffic, do NOT slow down. It just throws their timing off.” From experience, that is 100% true. People would step out into multilane high-speed traffic in the dark of night (very few streetlights over there), wearing black robes and sandals, but they totally knew what they were doing and as a driver, you just let them do it. BTW, if you haven’t driven in Turkey, I highly recommend it. It’s kind of like being in a demolition derby with fewer crashes. Traffic guidance (traffic lights, speed limits, lanes, sidewalks, etc.) is viewed as mere suggestion. There’s only one immutable law: the biggest vehicle wins. The best way I can describe it is driving like you walk on a crowded sidewalk: go with the flow, fill the gap if you see one, go around anybody who’s moving slowly, and avoid getting stepped on. Sure you bump into those around you from time to time, or get pushed around, but it’s no big deal.

  12. Nice idea, shoud also be easy to wire up togehter with the rear brake lights. Maybe I should try it on one of my classic cars with 8 year inspection interval?

    But since nobody seems to care about lights these days – not using indicators, forgetting to turn the (rear) lights lights on when it’s dark, blinding others with their high mounted “automatic” LED lights on thir SUVs – it’s not going to get high priority and be requested by customers, like cup holders.

    Some security oriented brand like Volvo could probably make some positive press on it. We could hope for it being implemented on the next Mercedes S-class, so we regular peasants will get it in 2045..

    Green is the “go ahead” colour in traffic, so if someone cuts in right in front of you and you have to brake hard, you’re automaticly giving them the go ahead light, which could encourage ruthless motorists to do it even more often.

  13. Vehicle lighting regulations in the USA are an absolute joke to begin with. How about we start by mandating amber turn signals and flashing side markers already like the rest of the world.

    I wonder how many Americans have needlessly died over the years in accidents that could have been prevented if only their car didn’t have a stupid blinking brake light.

  14. This has been added to my imaginary concept dream car to go along with the stylized “bar graph” brakelights indicating the level of braking/deacceleration (at least three levels from slowdown to panic stop).

  15. How about a rear head light that you can flash at people behind you with their high beams on, glaring into your rearview mirrors? or no lights on at all.

    Would take a lot to get this changed for U.S. law probably, seems too similar to what regulations would consider emergency vehicle lighting.

    1. Every car sold in Europe already has that, it’s called a rear fog light but it would be just as useful to flash the person behind you.

      They’re not even illegal in the USA, just very rare since they’re not required.

      1. That could work, though that’s another thing people seemed to drive around with on blast when they don’t need them.

        Don’t know how true it is, but I once read a Twitter exchange where someone wondered about a better way to “thank” someone for letting you merge in front of them and someone said in Europe/some areas, people do that with hitting the 4-way flashers – but that also wouldn’t work in the U.S. with the number of red signals or combined signal/stop lamps, it would more like a brake check.

      2. A4A- my SAAB 9-3 had rear fog lights. Actually it just had a bulb in one side; the other socket was empty (from the factory for US models, I think) and I just popped in a bulb and it worked. It was great for brake checking people without actually hitting the brakes.

  16. This is an excellent idea.
    I also assert that dark tint windows are a major hazard as well.
    When I’m approaching a car that’s 90 degrees to me and I can see the driver, I can tell if he has seen me. Dark tint prevents that. Unsafe and even more so if one is riding a bicycle.

  17. -Had to comment for the 1st time on this AWESOME site to say I was just surprised to see a “Maximum Overdrive is terrible” comment- of course everyone has their own taste in movies/music/CARS!/etc. but that’s one of my favorite movies ever, have seen 10 times (although the alternate movie “TRUCKS” really is terrible!)
    -Also, front “brake” lights not needed…can’t trust idiots on their phones even when stopped!
    -I LOVE this site! More David Tracy please!

  18. I have absolutely nothing to add to the conversation about the feasibility of front brake lights. I just wanted to note that the Explorer V looks like an AMX and a Toronado had an illicit affair and I absolutely want to adopt their bastard offspring.

    1. I see a lot of Ford in it too.

      What gets me is there’s all this experimental lighting but it still has red freakin’ rear turn signals. Possibly combined with the rear brake lights.

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