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FACT FINDER: Blinded by the light, what you need to know about LED headlights

You've probably complained to yourself when you see headlights glaring at you in on-coming traffic. We're seeing more LED and High Intensity Discharge or HID head lamps on the road.

A study from AAA shows about 80 percent of vehicles still have halogen headlights, but many predict that number will go down as manufacturers switch to more advanced lighting.

Researchers say that could be a good and bad thing.

Dr. Megan Heil, an ophthalmologist at Bowling Vision Center, said the brighter headlights are posing problems for some of her patients.

"They come in and complain that they literally don't drive at night anymore because they are too afraid to, and that is becoming even more so with these newer, brighter lights," said Heil.

Dr. Heil said they even affect her.

"Yeah they bother me a lot."

She said if any headlights have a starburst look, you could have some eye problems.

"We have a lot of patients who are ready for cataracts surgery and one of the things they notice is glare with headlights, even more pronounced with the LED lights," said Heil.

Healthy eyes take a couple seconds to recover from headlight glare. Similar to the spots you see after flash photos, "but someone with cataracts or macular degeneration, it could take 10-20 seconds and that's a long time when driving," said Heil.

She said there's not a lot of research into whether LED head lamps have long-term effects on vision.

"I did find research that showed longer, prolonged exposure to LED light in general, whether it be from tablets or phones, to TV's, or even lighting in your home or office, can have effect on retinal cell health."

She said the reason is because of the wavelengths that give LED lights a blue tint, and some agencies seem to be aware of the problem.

A 2008 strategic plan by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials calls for wider road medians. Part of the reason was reducing headlight glare.

A local INDOT spokesman said the area of Capital Avenue between Lincolnway East and the bypass went from having no median at all, to becoming a four-lane road with a median stretching over 50 feet wide in some places.

INDOT said reducing headlight glare is a good thing, but not the only factor in these road improvements.

INDOT also said it drastically modified the median on the new section of U.S.31 from Lakeville to South Bend, increasing it from just four-feet to more than 80 feet in places.

With growing concern about headlight glare, researchers like Matt Brumbelow with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, are trying to hold car manufacturers accountable.

"We decided it made sense for us to start doing an actual rating program, so consumers who are looking for a vehicle would really have no way previously to compare how headlights on different vehicles would perform," he said.

That program started last year. He said when used correctly, LED and HID lamps were the best performing. He said it has to do with whether the light is "reflected" or "projected." Projected light proved to be more efficient, according to Brumbelow. He said a third of vehicles had too much glare, however.

"When you combine a bright headlight and poor aim you can end up with more glare," said Brumbelow.

Even badly aimed halogen lights are going to make you feel blinded, something the manufacturer needs to control, according to Brumbelow.

"Until our test, there really was no incentive for them [manufacturers] to control it, so the regulation, the federal law, that governs how much light that a headlight needs to produce says nothing about how it's aimed on a vehicle," he said.

Overall a study from AAA says the LED and HID lights are beneficial.

"The HID and the LED lights illuminate roadways 25 percent more than the halogen lights," said Beth Mosher, a AAA spokesperson.

Mosher said their research shows cars with halogen lights likely can't stop safely for obstacles in the road if they're driving more than 50 miles per hour.

Mosher also said there's not a lot of proof that the extra glare from LEDs leads to accidents.

One thing to keep in mind is all this research only pertains to vehicles manufactured with LED or HID headlights, not old cars that have been upgraded with aftermarket products. Aftermarket headlights were not recommended by the sources WSBT 22 spoke to, partly because in many cases they can increase glare.

AAA also said dirty headlights can actually increase glare and reduce driver visibility, so make sure you get those lights cleaned, as well as keeping a clean windshield.

Indiana State Police said the only law regarding headlights they are supposed to enforce is a failure to dim statute. In an e-mail, ISP spokesman Sgt. Trent Smith said, "I couldn’t find anything about how bright they are allowed to be (i.e. candle power, lumens or brightness)."

Here is the failure to dim statute:

Indiana IC 9-21-8-51

Blinding lights: failure to dim; Class B infraction

Sec. 51 A person who:

(1) Operates a vehicle; and

(2) Fails to dim bright or blinding lights when meeting another vehicle or pedestrian; commits a Class B infraction

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