Many U.S. motorists are driving blind, and they probably don’t even realize it. Their headlights rely on antiquated technology that fails to properly illuminate the roadway but manages to blind oncoming drivers.

That could change, however, if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allows a new generation of headlights on the road at the end of an ongoing rulemaking process.

Amid high-profile safety initiatives – such as Washington’s Vision Zero, which aims to reduce traffic deaths, particularly among pedestrians – advocates hope the momentum will encourage regulatory change and hasten industry efforts to improve automotive lighting systems.

Headlamp systems have received more attention as traffic fatalities have risen, particularly among pedestrians and bicyclists, despite advances in automotive design. About a quarter of all travel occurs at night; about 71 percent of all pedestrian deaths also occur then.

Maine reported 21 pedestrian deaths in 2017, the highest total since 1993.

Known as adaptive driving beam technology, or ADB, the systems use computers and light sensors to adjust the cone of light that allows the driver to see the road in front of the vehicle. With ADB, the headlamp can remain on high and its beam can remain focused on the road ahead. But the beam is also reshaped or dimmed to avoid creating glare for oncoming drivers.

When a vehicle is trailing another, its ADB system can also detect the vehicle ahead and adjust the lights so as not to disturb the leading motorist. It’s a step forward from automatic systems in use today that click on and off between high and low beam.

“It’s a very exciting technology,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering at AAA.

Some ADB systems use an array of LED bulbs that turn on and off as computerized sensors and cameras pick up light from oncoming vehicles. Other ADB headlamps rely on mechanical shutters that shade the beam for oncoming motorists but allow for better illumination of the road. Brannon likened the systems to the way the eye’s pupil adjusts to light, but in reverse.

The problem with automotive illumination has been finding ways for drivers to see at night without blinding everyone else. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that only a little more than half of new cars have adequate lighting systems, which means the best way to see the road is to ride with the high beams on all the time.

Yet studies have shown that people rarely use their high beams, perhaps because of forgetfulness or concerns about accidentally blinding oncoming drivers (not to mention concerns of getting flashed back). Also, many headlights degrade over time as sunshine damages their coatings.

Headlights’ impact on safety is obvious. More than half the driver deaths in crashes occur at night. Seventy-one percent of pedestrian deaths also occur in the evening. A study by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute estimates that ADB technology could reduce nighttime crashes by 7 percent, Phys.org reported.

Federal regulations allow automakers to use systems that only switch from high beams to low beams; they expressly prohibit dynamic systems that simultaneously use the beams. Last fall, however, after a petition from Toyota, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on whether to allow the kind of smart-technology headlamps that are already in use in Europe.

“We support the adaptive driving beam, with a few caveats,” AAA’s Brannon said. He said those limitations are particularly evident when two cars are approaching the crest of a hill from opposite directions. In that scenario, the drivers can still get an eyeful of light beams because the high angle from the bulbs isn’t picked up right away.

Studies have shown that low beams are inadequate for many driving scenarios. AAA, in a research paper on ADB technology, has found that on unlit highways – the majority of U.S. roads – headlamps on low beam provide adequate illumination only at speeds of 39 mph to 52 mph.

“That’s a pretty significant safety issue,” Brannon said.


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