Are vehicle headlights too bright? Debate revs up as U.K. plans study

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Are car headlights too bright these days?

The U.K. announced in late March that it will commission an independent study into glare from bright car headlights, but it is unclear whether Canada could — or should — do the same.

The intention for a study in the U.K. comes after a petition called for action and gained over 13,000 signatures. The petition said some headlights cause oncoming traffic to be “unable to see clearly and safely.”

U.K. roadside assistance company RAC launched its own study of car headlights and found that out of 2,000 drivers, nearly 90 per cent said at least some headlights on cars on the road today are too bright. Of those affected by the bright lights, 85 per cent said they believe the problem is getting worse.

“Of all these drivers who complain about the brightness of car headlights, some 91 per cent say they get dazzled when driving with three-quarters (74 per cent) saying this happens regularly,” the company said in a statement in January.

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RAC said the effect may be due to more cars having LED headlights, which have a much more intense and focused beam than “yellower” halogen bulbs.

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Global News asked Transport Canada if it intends to study the issue but did not receive a response in time for publication.

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Automotive regulatory compliance lawyer Tim Cullen, a partner at the law firm McMillan, told Global News that he has no doubt that LED headlights fall within Canada’s regulations for brightness, but admitted that the human eye may still perceive them different from halogen bulbs.

“The standard doesn’t take into account that (the light) could be with a halogen bulb or an LED bulb,” he said. “The way people perceive light is different, and maybe the standards need to be adjusted to account for that.”

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He said that if any change in regulations were to happen, it would likely be the U.S. acting first as Canada’s road safety laws often mimic our neighbour to the south, and officials here rarely take the first step due to the smaller size of the domestic auto market.

However, whether LED headlights are actually a bad thing is still up for debate.

The U.K. said in a statement that police collision statistics don’t show any underlying road safety issue with bright lights, but the national government has brought up the issue with the United Nations international expert group on vehicle lighting.

David Aylor, the vice-president for active safety at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told Global News that along with the trend of more LED headlights has come greater visibility and reduced glare for newer vehicles that were tested. He said visibility at night is very important since over half of fatalities occur then, even though it only accounts for about 20 per cent of the time people drive.

“We’ve seen from our headlight testing that vehicles that produce good visibility reduce single-vehicle crashes at night,” he said. He noted that it is difficult to study glare caused by oncoming traffic.

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Aylor admitted that where headlights are positioned can affect the amount of glare, and the U.S.’s glare maximum is not evaluated with headlights actually mounted on the vehicle.

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He said that headlights are mounted higher on trucks and SUVs, which have a “big influence” on the amount of glare.

There is now technology called Adaptive Driving Beam that allows beams to adapt based on what is in front of it, picked up by cameras, but Aylor said it was just allowed in the U.S. last year and isn’t widely adopted.

Despite the greater visibility, some drivers, such as the ones in the U.K., are speaking out.

Reddit has a dedicated forum for headlight complaints, with users sharing pictures of the bright lights even in daytime.

Dr. Mark Eltis, an optometrist and president of the College of Optometrists of Ontario, told Global News that bright lights in the dark cause an “overwhelming of the system,” and noted that Canada does have an aging population who are more susceptible to vision impairment.

He said patients do complain to him about the brightness of headlights.

Bob Dewar, a retired road safety consultant who ran Western Ergonomics and is a member of the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals, told Global News that bright headlights are a concern and “definitely cause glare.”

Dewar, who is a senior, said those older are more susceptible to glare, and while the bright lights may be great for the drivers that have them, they’re “very bad for pedestrians and other drivers.”

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“It’s even worse when there’s water on the road, then you get glare reflected off of the wet pavement as well,” he said. “I’ve seen some lights that are very, very bright.”

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