If you have ever been blinded by the glare of oncoming headlights, you may have wondered if they are getting brighter. They are, and they may be partly to blame for making our roads more dangerous after dark.
According to the National Safety Council, Americans only do 25% of our driving at night. And yet, 50% of our traffic deaths happen after dark. This is the result of several factors, but the potential role of overly bright headlights should not be ignored.
A recent article in the New York Times delved into the issue, pointing to the combination of more powerful headlights and an increased number of pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) on the road as a possible issue. Innovations in lighting technology have resulted in the creation of brighter, more energy-efficient headlights. However, the height at which headlights are set on trucks and SUVs means that the beam of the headlights may hit drivers in lower vehicles directly in the eyes.
Catching the full glare of oncoming headlights right in the eyes may cause momentary blindness. This puts drivers, their passengers and everyone else on the road at increased risk of being involved in a car accident.
Headlight brightness has been increasing for decades
Back in the 1950s through the 1980s, vehicles were equipped with sealed-beam headlights. Sealed-beam headlights, or headlamps as they were called, consisted of an enclosure with a bulb in front of a lens, made completely of glass. The whole unit was sealed and if one component broke, the entire sealed-beam headlight had to be replaced – none of the individual parts could be replaced separately.
Although they were not considered bright enough, sealed-beam headlights were not phased out of the production of new cars until the 1980s and early 1990s. They were replaced by halogen headlights, which had tungsten filaments and offered better light output.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, advances in headlight technology brought us high-intensity discharge lights. These popular headlights cast a bright glow that was comparable to the spectrum of daylight.
The popularity of high-intensity discharge headlights waned, however, when LED headlights debuted. By the 2010s, LED headlights were standard on many vehicles. Longer lasting and more energy-efficient than other headlights, LED headlights also gained popularity with automakers who felt they had a more modern and sexy style than older headlights.
Newer headlights are more challenging for the human eye
As the design of headlights has evolved over the years, they have gotten smaller. The result is a greater concentration of light that makes the light appear brighter. This increased intensity hits the eye differently. Additionally, the output spectrum of LED and high-intensity discharge headlights may appear to have a more blueish tint than the output spectrum of halogen lights. According to experts, this is more uncomfortable for the eyes than a warm or yellowish light.
It is not only the design of the actual headlight that may be causing problems for other drivers. The rise in popularity of tall pickup trucks and SUVs – they account for nearly half of the 280 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States – may also be to blame. Since these vehicles are taller, their headlights are mounted at a height that often hits drivers in sedans and other low cars right in the eyes.
While this can momentarily blind drivers, it is difficult to avoid considering the number of pickup trucks and SUVs on the roads.
Have drivers always had concerns about headlights?
Drivers have long complained about the excessive glare from other vehicles’ headlights. For the past 20 years, according to the Times article, concern has grown about the dangers of these overly bright lights.
A 2001 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) received a significant response from drivers who were eager to share their thoughts regarding the glare from other vehicles’ headlights. The NHTSA’s report noted that the 4,000 responses from members of the public was the highest number of responses they had ever received regarding a safety concern.
Approximately 30% of respondents to the NHTSA survey said they had experienced dangerous nighttime headlight glare. This included glare coming from headlights in oncoming traffic as well as from vehicles approaching from behind whose lights hit rearview mirrors.
While some may assume that these concerned drivers were mostly older motorists who might have other eye issues, that was not the case. The highest percentage of respondents who rated oncoming glare as a problem – 45% – were between the ages of 35 and 54, whereas 11% of drivers over the age of 65 expressed concern over the issue.
For drivers aged 18 to 24, bright headlights on cars approaching from behind were a bigger concern than the glare of headlights from oncoming traffic.
Twenty years later, it is possible that the results of a new survey would have similar results, especially since headlight brightness has only increased over the past two decades.
What else causes nighttime driving accidents?
The momentary blindness that can occur after being hit in the eyes with the glare from an extremely bright headlight can be dangerous, but it is not the only reason so many motor vehicle accidents happen at night. Other potentially deadly factors include:
- Compromised vision – This may be an issue that most people attribute solely to elderly drivers, but according to the National Safety Council, reduced night vision can be a problem for drivers of any age. The organization says that “depth perception, color recognition and peripheral vision can be compromised in the dark.”
- Reduced visibility – At the risk of stating the obvious: it gets dark at night. Really dark in some areas, as not all roads are well-lit by streetlights. Headlights obviously help, but not as much as you may expect: driver visibility is only around 250 feet with the average headlight and 500 feet with high-beam headlights. A dirty windshield can also make visibility difficult at night. f a vehicle’s windshield is not clean that can also contribute to visibility challenges.
- Driver fatigue – Drivers hitting the road tired is a big problem. A 2016 study by the AAA Foundation revealed that drivers who miss just one to two hours of sleep are more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident. But even a full night of sleep is not foolproof. Drivers who get into the car after a long day or who have been on the road for several hours can experience fatigue that can impair their judgement or slow their reaction time.
- Alcohol impairment – Despite efforts to curb drinking and driving, it remains an issue that makes driving more dangerous at any time of day, but especially at night. A 2018 study by the NHTSA found that “the rate of alcohol impairment among drivers involved in fatal crashes was 3.4 times higher at night than during the day.” While 9% of fatal motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol occurred during the day, 31% happened at night.
A dangerous or even deadly car accident can happen at any time of day. When it does, you need an experienced personal injury lawyer fighting on your behalf. The skilled Chattanooga traffic accident lawyers at Wagner & Wagner Attorneys at Law have been representing car accident victims for 70 years. We can help. From our offices in Chattanooga, we represent clients in Chattanooga and Cleveland, TN and the surrounding counties, as well as in North Georgia. Call us at 423-756-7923 or complete our contact form to schedule a free consultation to discuss your case.
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