High-intensity blue spectrum headlights are illegal – and make it hard for me to see properly while driving at night. Why is there seemingly no policing of this dangerous practice? What are the regulations? – Scot, Burlington, Ont.
Those blueish high-intensity headlights might make oncoming drivers see red – but they're not necessarily illegal, experts say.
In fact, if headlights are blinding you, it's likely because they are not positioned properly.
"We had the exact same arguments about blinding headlights when the halogen lights came out years ago, after the old bulbs where you could barely see down the highway," says Raynald Marchand, general manager of programs at the Canada Safety Council. "If lights are blinding, it's because they're improperly aimed or the vehicle is heavily loaded."
The blueish light typically comes from gaseous discharge light sources (GDLS), where an electric charge passes through an ionized gas, usually xenon. They're called high-intensity discharge (HID) lights. Auto makers are allowed to use them.
Transport Canada governs lighting on all new vehicles under Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108. "GDLS headlamps have been available to manufacturers since 1996, and are legal in Canada," spokesman Ben Stanford wrote in an e-mail.
Aftermarket lighting – making changes or additions to the lights that came from the manufacturer – is regulated by the provinces and the territories.
Ontario's Ministry of Transportation told us in an e-mail that "no more than four front headlights, driving lights, or fog lights may be lit at one time if they project a beam having an intensity of over 300 candela."
The Highway Traffic Act also says headlights have to be installed, aligned and maintained properly so as not to cause glare or dazzle oncoming drivers. If improperly installed, maintained or aligned headlights are blinding drivers, the fine is $110.
"It's an issue if lights aren't aimed properly," says OPP highway safety division Sergeant Kerry Schmidt. "We get a lot of trucks with big loads and a lot of weight in the back can throw lights out of alignment."
HID lights are pricey and they were often found in high-end imports. Most manufacturers are switching to LEDs.
Drivers complain that oncoming lights are more distracting on newer vehicles, but lights aren't necessarily brighter than they used to be.
"Headlights aren't really becoming brighter because standards limit the amount of light from all headlights at the same levels," says Michael Flannagan, an associate professor with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. "But blue-white colours do seem to give people more of an impression of glare – misaimed, dirty, and hazed headlights can also contribute to glare."
However, some vehicle owners try to upgrade the lighting of their vehicles to mimic the Xenon-HID lights found on higher-end cars. These aftermarket bulbs are not HID light units, may not meet provincial or state regulations, and are, in fact, illegal.
They may be brighter and more powerful, but because they have been installed in lights that are not designed for them; they cast not only a bright (tinted blue), but an uncontrolled light.
Electrodes are wired to ballast containing a circuit board with several high current capacitors, transistors, and resistors. The ballast acts as the light's control centre, igniting the light and then regulating its power flow. These are much more complex and costly units and not duplicated by simply replacing the bulb in a standard halogen headlight. Halogen lights produce light in the 3,000 Kelvin range, HID lights in the 5,000-6,000 range.
As the colour temperature goes up, the light goes from having a yellow tint (3,000-4,000) through clean and bright white (5,000-6,000) to having a blue tint (8,000-10,000). At about 12,000 it becomes almost purple. Most of the "HID-look" aftermarket light bulbs, likely the offensive ones you cite, are simply more powerful halogen bulbs coated with a blue tint.
As for policing? Law enforcement people do not have the time or manpower to pull these vehicles over and verify whether the headlights meet standards.
With a file by Richard Russell.
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