HID: Blinded by the Light?

Those extra-bright High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights some new cars and trucks come equipped with are wonderful to have if you're behind the wheel -- but not so great for other drivers, who are complaining to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in record numbers about the excessive glare these new lighting systems allegedly produce.

Since last September, when the public comment period began, more than 1,800 complaints have been filed with NHTSA about HID automotive lighting systems and the associated glare they create -- a record, according to people within the agency. Even the hot-button issue of airbag cut-off switches drew less than half the number of public responses.

HID lighting systems are a fairly new upgrade of the tried-and-true sealed beam headlamps that have been in use for decades. Instead of an incandescent bulb with a filament, HID lights work by passing an electric current through (typically in automotive applications) xenon gas, with the resultant illumination projected by compound reflectors.

HID lights produce about four times the output of regular sealed-beam headlamps -- and emit a characteristic pale blue-white light. High-end luxury cars such as those manufactured by BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus have featured HID lighting systems as a major selling point since the late 1990s -- and the technology is already beginning to filter down to less expensive, bread-and-butter vehicles. Within the next year or so, HID lights are very likely to become a mass-market feature on most new cars and trucks, comparable to CD-playing audio systems or power windows.

Glaring questions

The question is, are the benefits of HID lights -- improved nighttime visibility especially -- offset by the problems they create for other drivers? At the present, it's not a big deal because the majority of new cars still come equipped with conventional sealed beam lamps. But what happens when the majority of new cars come equipped with HID lights -- as could easily happen within the next few model years?

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) did a study of the problem and found that while HID lighting systems can create "uncomfortable" glare for drivers of oncoming cars, it is not "disabling." A similar study done by the University of Michigan arrived at basically the same conclusion.

It may be that HID lights are only a problem for those with unusual sensitivity to bright light, such as the elderly and those with eye problems. However, there are a lot of older drivers out there -- and many more of all ages with less than perfect vision. At 65 mph, even a moment of incapacity can be lethal. If HID lights temporarily blind other drivers, making it impossible for them to see the road ahead -- even if it's just for a second or two until their eyes adjust -- then HID lights are a very real safety hazard.

"I have been temporarily blinded many times, and as a result I was unable to see the road ahead of me," Jennifer DiSabatino of Holliston, Mass., wrote to NHTSA. "HID headlights should be banned," wrote Cynthia Kruse of Merritt Island, Fla. "They are entirely too bright."

NHTSA is weighing the evidence, continuing to accept public comments -- and may take steps to regulate HID lighting systems in the future. It's possible they could be banned.

You can put your two cents in by filing a comment with NHTSA, either by mail (Department of Transportation, Docket Management Section, Room PL-401, Washington, D.C. 20002) or via the Internet at the NHTSA/DOT Web site,http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov .

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