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Been dazzled lately?

A car with headlights on (Credit: Andrew Fox / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

It all started with a visit to my optician – seeking help to deal with dazzling headlights.

“It’s not just you oldies”, the optician (more tactfully) said; “youngsters also complain”.  The College of Optometrists’ Acuity magazine had a whole feature on it, and reports that virtually all their members see patients wanting eye treatment for this. However, the problem is the headlights, not their eyes.  

Some are having premature cataract treatment; for others there’s simply nothing wrong, though many, especially women, are deciding not to drive at night.  This is a drastic response to a problem with the new LED headlights.  

Meanwhile the RAC knows its members find LEDs troublesome, yet when I submitted a written question, the Department for Transport (DfT) said, “No problem, no-one killed”.

The Lords has done its bit to raise the glare issue and to show there is a widespread problem.  It is now for the government to undertake research and then take action

So I tabled an oral question, when there was plenty of evidence from around the House that the dazzle problem was real.  A snippet on Today in Parliament led to similar complaints from cyclists, from motorcyclists (“try a wet visor with those lights!”), early workers, and from both town and country drivers – the former suffering from sleeping policemen which suddenly raise an oncoming car’s beam; the latter from winding roads and sudden oncoming lights.

Still, the Minister said “no evidence of any problem” – despite receiving it from the RAC, optometrists and the public – and also from the States where the campaign against increased luminance is well under way.  Furthermore, the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee’s July report The neglected pollutants: the effects of artificial light and noise on human health noted that surveys indicate that dazzle from car headlights is a growing problem, which may be related to the rollout of LEDs, with some suggesting they should be dimmer in urban environments to aid contrast and avoid dazzle.

The problem arises from current standards having been adopted before the introduction of LEDs, and being mandated to ensure drivers could see clearly – with no thought given to their impact on on-coming drivers (other than the requirement to dip headlights). So new cars are being fitted with bulbs which are brighter, whiter (harder for the eye to adapt) and often at greater heights, without breaking any rules.  Retrofitting inappropriate lights is also a problem.

It's true there will be no easy answer, but that doesn’t mean the government shouldn’t start to take action.  The Lords Committee called for research to establish the level of risk from glare, flicker and dazzle in nighttime driving.

An important technical discussion is taking place in the United States about measuring the density of light, its precision, curvature of the source, lensing and ray tracing software – but there is no such debate within our DfT.  This failure to discuss such a key issue, or to publish performance standards for LED headlights, is why so many people are complaining about headlight dazzle.  

For driver comfort and safety, the DfT needs to produce precise maps of luminance at all distances and angles, and set limits on such luminance – the blue wavelength light.  Existing LED headlights produce extreme luminance that is hazardous (and may even cause eye pain or injury).  We would also need to enforce such new standards as part of the MOT – an issue government should be working on without delay.

The Lords has done its bit to raise the glare issue and to show there is a widespread problem.  It is now for the government to undertake research and then take action.  In other areas, we work on the precautionary principle – there is cause for concern, so find remedies now.  Why wait for an accident to trigger a response?  Prevention is in drivers’ interests, which need to override those of car designers and sales teams, bulb manufacturers and the “do nothing” tendency of the DfT.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, Labour peer

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