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Blinded by the light - of oncoming headlights

Picture this: You're on a night ride and, off in the distance, you spy an illumination about as bright as a small star headed toward you.

Driver: I hope that guy turns off his brights...

Passenger: What is that?

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Driver: It's getting closer.

Passenger: Oh my god! What's going on?

Driver: Agghhh! My eyes! Where am I? I can't see my hands! It's all blue-white light!

Passenger: I think I can see my grandfather. Are we dead? Is this heaven?

Driver: Don't go into the light!

Welcome to the wonderful world of high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights or as drivers of standard vehicles call them BOME (Bane Of My Existence).

Introduced circa 1991, HIDs create light by passing electricity through xenon gas and produce three times the illumination of conventional tungsten-halogen lights. They cast illumination upon a wider area of the road, are better for peripheral vision, use less energy and can last the life of the car. They are also the headlight-of-choice for drivers of luxury vehicles looking to blind oncoming traffic.

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Why?

The HID's signature blue hue does not trigger a strong reflexive pupil-closing reaction. The eye is left more open and vulnerable to searing glare. So, when the glow from HID headlights floods into an approaching car it causes the occupants to feel as if they've been dropped suddenly into a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The car fills with so much radiance it's as if a meteor just scorched past. If the HID-carrying vehicle is behind you, get ready for the same dizzying luminescence refracted through your rearview mirror. You keep waiting for the other driver to turn their high beams off but they never do because, like Home Improvement or Degrassi reruns, this eye-scalding terror never relents.

The calamity is exacerbated by the fact that most luxury vehicles and big-riding SUVs have their xenon lights situated higher than on normal cars: perfect for shining directly into traffic (even pedestrians are not immune). And, if you see a "non-luxury" vehicle projecting HID-induced blue light, odds are it is sporting poorly installed low-rent knock-offs.

Of course, it's not all bad news. There is an upside to HIDs.

1) Costly laser eye surgery is no longer necessary. At night the near-sighted can simply stand by the side of the road and stare into oncoming traffic.

2) Frequent exposure to HIDs could subliminally increase sales of Labatt's Blue Light. Thinner domestic beer enthusiasts!

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But take heart. When it comes to the automobile, there is always one certainty: Companies will throw billions of dollars at problems they spent billions of dollars creating. The realm of the HID headlight is no exception. It was recently reported that researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lighting Research Centre in New York are exploring the creation of high beam lights that can sense oncoming traffic and dim out a calibrated sliver of light thrown into the other lane. The centre's director refers to it as "guilt-free visibility." Gentex Corp., a Michigan-based manufacturer, makes Smartbeam, a system that lowers high beams when cars approach. Sounds promising.

Relief may also come from a new series of light-emitting diodes (LED) headlights. Though LEDs are common in brake and signal lights, LEDs headlights are only available on select high-end cars such as the Audi R8, Lexus hybrids and Cadillac Escalades. Steve Mertl of the Canadian Press recently reported that white-light LEDs are getting more powerful and that car companies are enthusiastic about them because they offer "long life, low power consumption and new styling and function possibilities." Scientists are also developing a "common senser" which works, one researcher says, "by you turning your f***ing lights down when you see another car coming."

That, of course, presupposes that drivers who blind other drivers with high-intensity discharge lights want to cease and desist. It may be that the best thing about having HID headlights on your car is their ability to rend normal drivers virtually sightless. There has to be some kind of thrill a motorist feels - like the kind Zorro gets from leaving a letter "Z" carved in his adversary's tunic - from realizing that the person he just passed on the nocturnal highway is groping around blinding trying to keep their vehicle on the road.

Such is the human condition.

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About the Author
Road Sage columnist

Andrew Clark, an award-winning journalist, screenwriter and author, is Director of the Comedy Writing and Performance program at Humber College in Toronto. More

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