BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG VEHICLES

27Apr07

Like cell phone users who won’t shut up and drive, people who cruise around with their headlights permanently set in the “blind” position are a menace and a danger on the roadway. I used to think that the problem was just people who left their high beams on by mistake, but I now realize that there is more to this than meets the eye.

For some time, I have held that one of the following three things must be true: 1) My aging eyes are becoming more sensitive to glare at night; 2) Two out of every three motorists are driving around with their high beams on; Or, 3) Sometime in the last decade automakers started putting brighter headlights on cars.

Despite my eagerness to believe that two out of three drivers are idiots, it turns out that that the actual number is only one in three. (It just seems like more than that.)

The fact is that dimwits cruising obliviously with their high beams permanently on are only a small part of the problem. As far back as 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was fielding complaints from drivers about the blinding effects of headlights from other vehicles.

According to a 2001 report on the NTSA web site, “Within the last two years, NHTSA has received numerous complaints about nighttime glare from three types of headlights mounted on the front of motor vehicles: ‘high intensity discharge’ (HID) lights that appear blue, auxiliary lights, such as ‘fog lamps,’ and headlights mounted high on various light trucks (sport utility vehicles, pickups and vans.)”

According to complaints submitted to the NHTSA, “some drivers report that light from HID headlights seems blinding, even though the intensity of such lamps does not exceed federal standards.” People also complained about fog lights, the NHTSA notes. “In addition, some drivers of passenger cars find the higher-mounted headlights on SUVs, pickup trucks and vans to be very glaring,” according to the NHTSA report.

Maybe everybody else already knew all this, even as I bemoaned my failing eyesight. Still, that does nothing to diminish the intensity of the glare that five years after the NHTSA report, still blinds us as we drive.

In some ways, glare coming from behind can be worse than oncoming glare. There’s really no way to signal a driver behind you that his headlights look like prison searchlights in your rearview mirror. I read on the web that there is a way to adjust your rearview mirror to reflect the light back in the eyes of the offending driver. I’m still working on my technique.

A study quoted in USA Today found that HID headlights “put out more illumination than tungsten-halogen ones, but mainly to the sides of the road rather than straight ahead.” So it’s not your eyes, or your imagination. The modern headlights coming at you are indeed throwing brighter light over a wider area of your field of vision.

The fact that hardly anyone drives a sedan anymore only compounds the problem for those of us still driving traditional passenger cars. Now, we must not only deal with the fact that we can’t see around the behemoths that most people drive, we are also forced to stare directly into the high mounted headlights of oncoming SUVs, pickups, vans and Hummers.

And don’t make the mistake that I made a few years ago and try to communicate your objection to the operator of such an oversized vehicle. I received a stern lecture from the driver of a pickup large enough to haul Rhode Island informing me that he was driving a truck. (I already knew that.) And if I didn’t like the way his headlights were mounted, that was my problem. (I already knew that too.)

In conclusion, it’s not your eyes and it’s not just dim-witted drivers with their high beams on, although they are out there. The bigger problem is high intensity headlights mounted higher on larger vehicles.

I trust that this has been illuminating.

(This column originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.)

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