Blinded by the light

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

The song is not about HID headlamps on cars. There was no such thing as an HID headlamp when Bruce Springsteen wrote "Blinded by the Light" and Manfred Mann's recording of it hit No. 1 on the charts in 1977. But maybe it's time for Bruce to do a rewrite.

HID (high-intensity discharge) lamps have been controversial since 1996 when a change in NHTSA standards first permitted them. They appeared that year on Lincoln Continentals. The introduction of LED (light-emitting diode) headlamps in 2006 has kept the blinding-headlight controversy going.

Prompted by complaints, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a number of studies during the 2000s. The last report issued in July 2008 said, among other things, that "The relation of light levels and glare to crash risk cannot be quantified directly." The report also noted that "Light levels are a compromise. A glare source to one driver is a source of seeing light to another driver."

It seems the quality of HID light depended on which side of the bulb you were on.

The issue was hardly settled, and more than six years later the complaints have not stopped. You'll find plenty online by typing "blinding headlights" into a Twitter search box. At least three online petitions beg governments here and in the U.K. to deal with the problem.

And then there is OOIDA Member Thomas Perkins III who brought his concerns to Land Line.

"I'm going to tell you flat out, it's getting out of hand. These lights are like laser beams," said Perkins, who drives for Eclipse Transportation.

"These lights need to be rolled back to about the 1980s light levels. Back then, they didn't blind people as much. That was like when the square lights - halogens - first came out. Before that, I think they had normal incandescent lights or something like that. They pale in comparison to these."

Headlights keep changing

Perkins is right. Halogens arrived in 1983 and quickly dominated the market. Halogen allowed the filament in an incandescent lamp to glow brighter and last longer. Rectangular headlights actually appeared on American cars in the 1970s.

The trouble started with the HID lamp that replaced the glowing filament with an electric arc. The light produced was brighter and whiter, sometimes appearing blue. HID lamps first appeared as an option in BMWs and later in other high-end cars. They were an expensive option in expensive cars.

LED headlamps are more recent. They produce light in relatively small, individual units that were originally used as electronic indicator lights - for on/off switches as an example. Later, more powerful LEDs combined in groups provided bright light for all kinds of practical uses. In cars and trucks they were used as taillights and running lights before they found their way into headlamps.

Like the HIDs before them, LED headlamps are expensive, but they may ultimately provide a solution to the blinding headlight problem. (See related article, Page 85.)

How bad is the bright headlamp problem?

A California man named Don Berry is an unofficial spokesman for motorists unhappy with bright headlights. Berry has two active online petitions that address the issue, and he helps maintain the American arm of a Britain-based website called Lightmare.org.

At that site and Lightmare.org/USA.htm you'll find all you want to know and then some about bright headlights.

Berry says he got involved after moving from Chicago, where he did not own a car, to Pasadena, Calif., where a car is all but essential.

"I noticed lots of people were driving with their high beams on. Then I realized they were not high beams; they're the new HID headlights, which are now becoming LED headlights. And, I thought this is absurd. These are extremely bright, very distracting, blinding, aggravating," Berry said.

Berry even blames blinding headlights for a recent rise in highway fatalities nationally. In a November 2015 press release, NHTSA said that traffic deaths for 2015 were expected to be 8.1 percent higher than 2014.

"The only thing I can attribute it to is blinding headlights," Berry explained, summarily discounting other possible factors.

It isn't just headlamps

Factory-installed headlamps aren't the only source of glare. Perkins also cited roof-mounted light arrays often on pickups and people who simply don't lower their high beams.

"People are taking advantage of those lights, and using them like a weapon to annoy people. It's getting like 'Star Wars' out there," he said.

And then there are the aftermarket HID light kits some people buy to replace halogen lamps that came with the car. The kits may make a Kia look like a Mercedes coming at you in the dark, but they can be a source of glare for other drivers. Retrofitted HID lights sometimes have improper output and light distribution. There are lots of kits on the market, but many are illegal on the street.

Some police agencies ticket for improper headlights, but many kits are available at automotive stores and online from $35 and up. They're not going away any time soon.

But it all seems less than a national emergency. Obviously, bright lights bother more than a few people, but Berry's two Internet petitions drew less than 2,500 signatures over more than a year, and complaints on Twitter are vociferous but scattered - hardly a viral groundswell for change.

When asked about complaints it receives, NHTSA said it "does not keep the number of complaints regarding headlight glare." The agency also said it has no research or rulemakings in the works on headlight glare.

How to deal with glare?

According to AAA, the best way to defend yourself is to make sure your windshield is as clean as possible, inside and out. Do the same for your glasses if you wear them. Dirt or haze on glass defuses light and increases glare. The same is true for your mirrors.

Also be sure that your own headlights are clean. Dirt on your headlamp diffuses the light, reducing illumination for you and increasing glare for other vehicles. LL