Q. In regard to the headlamps mentioned in the Feb. 6 Q&A, and also a feature in your column about a month ago about headlamps in the 1930s to ’50s, I believe one of the federal concerns was about the brightness of the headlamps, particularly when four headlamps were introduced to replace the two 7-inch lamps in 1957-58.
It’s ironic that they were so concerned about it then, while today’s vehicles can have as many lamps on the front as the manufacturer desires, and there’s no concern about them blinding oncoming drivers, even if they are aligned properly.
When I’m driving down narrow country roads at night and encounter one of these “wall of lights” coming toward me (particularly pickups), it is virtually blinding and a very dangerous situation at times. Why don’t the regulators address this problem, I wonder?
— Jim Llewellyn, Charlotte, Tenn.
A. The Feb. 6 Q&A concerned steerable driving lights and the interaction of daytime running lights with directional signals, alluding to current federal regulations on the matter. It’s important to remember that federal regulation of passenger motor vehicles is quite recent, beginning with the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on Sept. 9, 1966. Since that date, extensive federal standards have been written, amended and expanded and now regulate much of the equipment on our cars and trucks.
Prior to 1966, aside from some Interstate Commerce Commission lighting regulations relating to motor freight, all automobile legislation was the responsibility of the states. The near-industry-wide adoption of sealed-beam headlights in the 1940 model year did not involve the federal government. The closest thing to federal regulation at the time was the American Association of State Highway Officials, which became the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in 1973, and today concentrates on standards and design for highways as well as air, rail, water, and public transportation infrastructure.
The work in creating the sealed-beam lights took place at General Electric’s Nela Park lighting laboratory in East Cleveland, Ohio, and involved Chrysler engineer Carl Breer, C. Harold Wills, Henry Ford’s erstwhile metallurgist and maker of the Wills Sainte Claire car, and William Enfield, a GE engineer. The Highway Officials group was instrumental in setting standards, C.M Hall Lamp Company, by then a GM subsidiary, took the concept to corporate headquarters, and the matter was later coordined through the Automobile Manufacturers Association. Not every make adopted sealed beams for 1940, however. Willys waited until 1941, Crosley 1948, and Graham, Hupp and Bantam never did.
Similarly, the halting 1957-’58 adoption of quad headlights was a state matter. The 15 states that initially prohibited more than two headlights were: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Today’s lighting regulations are found in Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108 (https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2004-title49-vol5/xml/CFR-2004-title49-vol5-sec571-108.xml). I wish I could call them “enlightening,” but in fact they’re rather obtuse. They are performance-based, rather than prescriptive of design. This came about over time. You’ll remember that rectangular sealed beams started to appear around 1980, as the round sealed beams had limitations, particularly in the 5-inch size. European cars had less-restrictive rules and their lights performed better in the real world. These increasingly were not of sealed-beam construction, but had manufacturer-designed reflectors and separate, replaceable bulbs. Eventually, performance standards made their way into FMVSS, specifying “what” rather than “how.” Standard 108 now requires a minimum of two headlamps, two red taillamps, two red stoplamps, etc., each governed by a Society of Automotive Engineers or other standard. The headlamp standards accommodate sealed beam lights and a myriad of composite types, each with specific photometric measurements (measured in candela, the international unit of luminous intensity) at particular angles. Contrary to your second paragraph, the specs do include maximum intensity limits.
The result is now a kaleidoscope of oncoming light. Gone are the days of two (or four) yellow orbs emanating from each oncoming car.
In practice, the standards apply to the construction of cars, not their characteristics. Nothing prevents an owner from replacing, removing or adding lights. Whether it’s legal to drive a vehicle so modified may depend on the jurisdiction, and apprehension certainly is certainly a factor of human judgment by law enforcement or state inspection practices.
Finally, let’s not forget the receiving end of the equation. Old folks don’t see well at night, and conditions like cataracts or macular degeneration make it worse. I’ve read that a very substantial portion of low-light vision is lost by age 35. Being more than twice that age, I know the feeling. We know that one size/shape/color does not fit all. What is less certain is whether more lighting choices make things better or worse, particularly for us geezers.
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