The Dangers of Overly Bright Headlights at Night

Car Headlights at NightDriving at night is more dangerous than driving during the day. That is not an opinion; it is a fact. The National Safety Council reports that 50 percent of traffic fatalities occur after dark. What makes that statistic even more concerning is that for all the time Americans spend on the road, only one quarter of it is at night.

Despite this alarming statistic, most people remain unaware of just how much danger they are in when they get behind the wheel or hop into a vehicle as a passenger after the sun has set.

While there are a variety of reasons why a greater number of car accidents happen at night than during daylight hours, a recent article in the New York Times focuses on a specific culprit: overly bright headlights on pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs). The Times article examines the concerns many passenger car drivers have regarding the increased intensity of these “too-bright” headlights combined with the growing popularity of trucks and SUVs. As it turns out, those concerns are not unfounded.

In general, the innovations and advancements in headlight development and lighting technology are beneficial. However, the brighter lights combined with the higher position these lights sit at on an SUV or truck have led to concern and criticism regarding both their intensity level and their potential impact on the human eye.

Being struck in the eye with an intensely bright headlight can momentarily “blind” a driver, rendering them unable to act or react quickly enough to prevent a car accident. Even that split second of temporary “blindness” may put the driver, their passengers, and anyone else on the road – or in a crosswalk – at risk.

Headlights have steadily been getting brighter

If you are a driver who suspects that headlights have become brighter over the years – and especially in recent years – you are right. Gone are the days of sealed-beam headlights. While these headlights were used from the 1950s through the 1980s, their light output was simply inadequate. Halogen headlights arrived on the scene in the 1980s and early 1990s, with tungsten filaments and increased light output.

Headlight technology development continued to innovate and evolve over the years, and high-intensity discharge lights became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The bright glow cast by these headlights was similar to the spectrum of daylight.

Most recently, in the 2010s, longer-lasting and more energy efficient LED headlights became standard on many motor vehicles. LED headlights had an added bonus – automakers felt they were a sexy, modern alternative to previous headlight styles.

What do today’s headlights do to the human eye?

Modern headlights hit the eye differently than past technology, according to experts. As the size of headlights has shrunk over the years, the concentration of light makes the light appear brighter. Experts say this may make the output spectrum of LED and high-intensity discharge headlights appear more blueish that that of halogen lights. Blueish light can cause more discomfort to the eye than a warm white or yellowish light.

Of course, the height at which headlights are mounted on tall pickup trucks and SUVs means that the light tends to hit anyone driving a low car, such as a sedan, right in the eyes. This is difficult to avoid since nearly half of the 280 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States are pickup trucks and SUVs. The sheer number of these vehicles on the roads makes them – and their headlights – nearly impossible to avoid.

Headlight glare is not a new issue

Complaints about the glare from other cars’ headlights are nothing new, according to the Times article. In fact, complaints go back at least two decades, which makes sense since that’s when brighter headlights really started to gain popularity.

The article cites a 2001 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which asked the public about glare from other vehicles’ headlights. The NHTSA received an overwhelming number of responses. So many, in fact, that they issued a report stating that the 4,000 responses they received were more than they received regarding any other safety concern.

Approximately 30% of survey respondents claimed they had experienced what they described as “disturbing” nighttime headlight glare. This included glare from the headlights of oncoming traffic as well as from cars whose lights hit their review mirrors. The NHTSA’s follow-up report made it clear that 30% was a “sizeable number” that could not be ignored.

While 11% of drivers over age 65 rated oncoming glare as a problem, by far the highest number of negative responses regarding the glare of headlights from oncoming cars – 45% – came from drivers between the ages of 35 and 54.

Additionally, drivers aged 18 to 24 were also concerned about bright headlights, although they were more concerned about the headlights on cars behind them rather than from oncoming traffic.

Headlights are even brighter now than they were two decades ago when the NHTSA conducted this survey. It seems likely that a new survey would produce similar results.

Nighttime car accidents happen for other reasons as well

Overly bright headlights may be to blame in a significant number of car accidents, but they are not the only factor that can cause or contribute substantially to a nighttime car accident. Potential causes also include:

  • Driver fatigue – Being tired behind the wheel can be deadly. People often equate driver fatigue with a significant loss of sleep, but that’s not always the case. In 2016, a study by the AAA Foundation showed that a driver who misses as little as one to two hours of sleep before getting in the car is more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle accident. Driver fatigue is not limited to missed hours of sleep. After a long, stressful day or several hours of driving, driver fatigue may set in even if the driver was well rested at the start of the day. Regardless of the cause, driver fatigue is a real danger.
  • Compromised night vision – When we see the phrase “compromised night vision,” we tend to think first and foremost of elderly drivers whose eyesight is likely not what it was when they were young. However, you do not have to be a senior citizen to struggle with night vision, it can be a challenge for drivers at any age. In fact, the National Safety Council reports that “depth perception, color recognition and peripheral vision can be compromised in the dark.”
  • Reduced visibility – Today’s more intense headlights provide greater visibility to drivers, but they do not correct everything. There are other factors that contribute to reduced visibility, especially after dark. For instance, while a roadway that boasts the appropriate number of streetlights will cast a safe glow for drivers, a roadway that does not have enough streetlights will do the opposite: leave drivers in the dark. The average headlight allows drivers to see a mere 250 feet, while high-beam headlights allow for 500 feet. A dirty windshield can also reduce visibility.

Let’s be honest, a serious can accident can happen at any time of day. When it does, the experienced Minot car accident attorneys at Larson Law can help. From our offices in Minot and Bismarck, we fight to secure fair compensation for clients who have been injured in car accidents. To schedule a free consultation to discuss your case, please call us at 701-484-HURT or fill out our contact form. We handle car accident cases on a contingency fee basis.