I love metaphors and I hate driving at night.
These two completely unrelated facts collided the other night when I was blinded by the blue-white glare of SUV headlights in my rear-view mirror.
You know the headlights I’m talking about: they’re xenon headlights (known in the car biz as high-intensity discharge lights, or HIDs) and when they come barreling up behind you on the highway, it’s hard not to feel like Karen Silkwood about to be run into a ditch. And if a set of these gleaming lights streaks towards you from the opposite lane, you’d better hope you’re alone on your side of the road, because you’re going to be momentarily blinded by the bluish glare.
I’ve tried all the things I was taught in my driver’s ed class (back in the stone age, granted). I blink my headlights at the blindingly white oncoming lights, only to get more glare flicked back at me. If I flip my rear-view mirror so that I can’t see the lights behind me, I can’t see much else behind me either, which makes lane-switching pretty much a crapshoot – especially winding through the nonsensically skinny roads of lower Westchester.
The headlights illuminate (sorry, couldn’t resist), a social contract dilemma: the headlights make driving safer for the person behind the headlights and less safe for the person in front of the headlights. And here’s where I veer off into the realm of the metaphoric: what are we to make of the fact that thousands and thousands of people think that their ability to see further and thus drive faster is more important than the general safety of everyone else on the road?
Of course, this metaphor, in my mind, gains further traction in the fact that these headlights aren’t cheap: they can cost up to $1000 to install (or a bargain-rate $850 on a new Mercedes). So what we’ve got (cue vox populi) is a lot of rich people zooming around blinding those of us putt-putting along in old Subarus.
But wait, you say, if these bright headlights are really unsafe, wouldn’t the government do something about that? Create headlight standards or installation regulations, or something?
Barring the fact that the government of the previous eight years didn’t do much else other than zoom around insisting that their need to get where they wanted to go trumped everything else, let’s examine how the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority (NHTSA) has handled this issue.
Back in 2001, NHTSA opened the subject of headlight glare for public comment; it then commissioned a report, which was published in 2003. In its summary, the report found that about 30% of respondents were “disturbed” by headlight glare. The authors of the study found that people were less bothered about headlight glare in months with increased daylight hours, and more bothered by headlight glare in darker months. An astonishing insight: when it’s dark, headlights are more bothersome than when it’s light. Really a heckuva job, don’t you think?
Reading this report did, at least, offer me a diagnostic term for my headlight frustration, which, according to the report’s statistics, is shared by a large percentage of women 35-44. We are “glare-disturbed.”
Glare-disturbed. It sounds somehow … peri-menopausal, doesn’t it? You know, she’s got hot flashes, dryness, and glare-disturb.
Or perhaps flirtatious: She was at a bar and got all glare-disturbed by the cute man at the next table.
But in the automotive context, glare-disturbances seem not to warrant any action on the part of the NHTSA, which insists that, as yet, no accidents have been caused by these new-and-improved headlights. Another instance of a government agency deciding that the best strategy is to wait until there’s a crisis to try and fix the problem. Right? Let’s not do anything, you know, preventative, like simply mandate that headlights on SUVs be mounted lower than the rear-view mirrors of other cars, to name just one way to improve this problem?
Sorry for the rant – I guess I’m just glare-disturbed. In my xenon-induced fog, I forgot how violently Detroit reacts against any impositions of standards (seatbelts, airbags, fuel emissions, you name it). Which may have something to do with why the auto industry execs are all walking around looking so glare-disturbed themselves, these days: the bright lights of their own extinction are bearing down on them.
Clearly I can’t rely on Detroit or the NHSTA to fix my glare-disturbances, alas, so I’ve been forced to come up with my own solution: I’m going to use my stimulus money to buy a monster truck.
Several years back, my hometown actually passed an ordinance outlawing xenon headlights.
Well, actually, they passed an ordinance outlawing anyone from installing xenon headlights in a car in which they were not OEM.
Meaning, if you could afford a new Mercedes or BMW, you were well within your rights to blind anyone else on the road. But if you were in, say, an older Honda, no blinding privileges for you.
I hate those damn things. Which, being female and 35-44, you might guess why. (And it’s not just that I drive a 1998 Honda.)