United States:Feds put spotlight on glare
Complaints prompt study of bright lights used on cars, trucks
By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- A new generation of headlights is lighting up the road better than ever, but they are also causing problems for other drivers, according to thousands of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Regulators at NHTSA are nearing completion of a two-year review of headlight glare, which could lead to new rules for brighter high-intensity discharge, or HID, headlights that are becoming increasingly popular on premium cars and light vehicles sold by Audi, BMW, Lexus and Range Rover.
NHTSA is trying to strike a balance between capturing the benefits and energy savings of the new technology, and unintended consequences. The agency also is likely to lower the maximum height for SUVs and other light trucks, whose higher lamp positions can shine into a car's rearview mirrors.
Within the next two years, NHTSA will explore those and several other glare issues, including whether to regulate auxiliary lamps such as fog lights, and new rules that could change requirements on how lamps are aimed. Several of the rules could be issued by the end of the year, said NHTSA spokeswoman Liz Neblett.
Comments filed with NHTSA since September 2001 show that the new HID headlights are stirring passions, splitting the driving public much the same way SUV ownership has. Safety experts, meanwhile, contend existing headlights aren't bright enough for high speeds.
For those behind the wheel, the brighter, bluish high-intensity discharge, or HID, headlights have made driving at night an entirely new experience. Objects in front of them are brighter, and the sides of the road come into view more fully.
"I have found them to be brighter and clearer, and they highlight the sides of the road much better than any other headlamp I have used," Francis O'Donnell of Aiken, S.C. wrote to the agency on July 9. "I would not buy a new car without HIDs."
Oncoming motorists don't see it that way. NHTSA has logged nearly 5,000 comments on the issue -- an unusually high number -- mostly from motorists who complain about them. NHTSA officials say it is the complaint most often forwarded to them by members of Congress, who are getting complaints from voters.
"HID lights are distracting, painful and could even be a contributor to road rage," Dennis Novak, a doctor from Forked River, N.J., said in a letter to the agency on April 8. "Not only do they blind the approaching vehicle in their path, but they often anger the approaching driver who impotently flashes his halogens, thereby annoying the row of cars behind the offending HID driver."
Even though complaints are pouring in, HID light-equipped light vehicles represent a tiny fraction of the vehicles on the road today. In recent years, only about 1 percent of new vehicles had them. But companies that make the lamps -- Dearborn-based Visteon Corp., Germany's OSRAM Sylvania, and Philips -- say customer satisfaction has been great.
According to a June study by OSRAM Sylvania, the market for HID lights was expected to grow from about 1 million vehicles this year to 2.3 million vehicles in 2007. The technology is already migrating from luxury brands to an option on the Nissan Altima sedan, the Toyota Celica coupe and the Toyota Sienna minivan.
For Michael Flannagan of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, the debate over glare is masking a huge safety issue: today's lowbeam headlamps are simply not bright enough.
Flannagan estimates the lighting distance permitted under current federal regulations is sufficient only to drive safely at speeds below 45 mph. By driving any faster, motorists can outdrive their headlights, Flannagan said.
U-M research suggests as many as 2,300 pedestrian deaths can be linked to weak low-beam headlights, because drivers do not see pedestrians in enough time to react.
"We think if people understood the real safety problem -- lack of seeing light -- they would be more accepting of some glare," Flannagan said.
HID lamps actually emit only about half as much glare as their halogen counterparts during the most common driving situation -- a straight, flat road, Flannagan said. They do emit more glare in other situations, such as cresting on top of a hill or making a turn.
Consumers Union recently began testing headlights as part of its influential vehicle evaluations. Jennifer Stockberger, a testing engineer, said the group began the tests after noticing a wide variation in lighting offered on new vehicles.
"The light itself is better and brighter. It's a daylight-like kind of light. Most drivers really like their HID-equipped vehicles," Stockberger said.
Two problems are correctable: contrast and color.
One is the nature of the HID beam. Unlike a traditional halogen beam, which gradually grows weaker as it blends into darkness, an HID beam ends suddenly. That leaves a very sharp line bouncing into and out of a person's field of vision. The sudden contrast creates more glare. Lighting manufacturers can make adjustments to make an HID beam fade out more gradually.
"There is no inherent problem with the technology," said John Van Derlofske, director of the Transportation Lighting Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "A lot is just optional design. Attention has to be paid to where the light is put."
Along with the HID headlight debate, NHTSA is expected to weigh the benefits of lowering the headlights of SUVs and other light trucks. Lighting experts say this can be done with little loss of light for light truck drivers.
The Society of Automotive Engineers published a study on the issue last year, which concluded glare could be substantially reduced with relatively small adjustments in headlight height.
"By lowering headlamp heights, you can greatly improve the situation for mirror glare and the oncoming driver," said Jeff Erion, a lighting manager at Visteon Corp. who is a past chairman of the SAE Lighting Committee.
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My next Ford.....