I have seen the light

Blog post posted on 06/03/17 |

A recent enquiry about headlight dazzle got me thinking about how lights have developed since the days of my old BMC Mini. The at best flickering yellow glow the front end of my old friend was made even worse by a wiring malady which, despite the best efforts of a number of ‘auto sparks’ and talented workers (in their own eyes), was never cured.

The regular commute through Epping Forest was often interrupted by a total blackout. The manoeuvre to get to the side of the road was exciting, but the cure: very simple lift bonnet and slam…voila! Lights back on and another morning planned under the bonnet.

Despite its failings the system on the Mini did have advantages. A bulb change took two minutes and a bulb cost £2. The only way you could dazzle other road users was to leave on your main beams or overload the car to point your lights shone skywards and even then the faint glow was never enough to cause permanent retinal damage. 

We then moved on to sealed units; a slightly brighter light but when the bulb failed which was still all too common, you had to replace the whole headlamp unit. A DIY job but more costly and often badly adjusted after fitting leaving the car with the appearance of a squint, in the times of dwindling resources not a very eco-friendly system and reasonably short-lived. The ability to dazzle had improved slightly and the adjustment problems assisted in the ability to blind oncoming traffic whilst remaining blissfully unaware.

Improvements in bulb technology led onto the halogen bulb. A fierce beast with the ability to cause pain to any approaching traffic, and for a number of years we followed the instructions not to touch the glass and changing the bulb involved  ever more complicated contortions to insert it correctly into the headlamps which are now masked by ever  increasing necessities under the bonnet. Switches to compensate for light adjustment when fully loaded and self-levelling systems galore strived to keep our dazzling efforts in check.

Main beam however was a different story. Many a knightly joust of flashing headlamps was started with an inadvertent omission to flick that switch back to dipped beam. I imagine the cries of “you are blinding me so you too shall be blind as we approach each other at a closing speed of 120mph, victory to the brave.”

That brings us nicely up to date with HID which is both immensely powerful and frighteningly bright. |The style of bulb used in these applications is reminiscent of an arc welder and we should all know not to stare at that.

Even on dipped beam the light produced is often much ‘whiter’ than we were previously used to giving the impression of being brighter. On main beam an approaching car can make you almost incapable of breathing and when you offer your flash of retort I expect to see the back to the future lines with both vehicles off into hyperspace.

So powerful are these beasts that many manufacturers seek to wrest control from us by offering auto dim features that will override our instinct to challenge the oncoming fire-eyed dragon.

This has all led to the increasing use of LED and laser technology on vehicles, infrared options are available to see without any appearance of light. Technology will allow adaptive main beam operation to focus the lights real time away from your potential jousting partner, the sport of dazzle will eventually become extinct as older cars head towards the light at the end of the final tunnel. What will we find to replace it? Hang on air horns! Who remembers Colonel Bogey?

On a serious note, check your bulbs, have the lights properly adjusted and be considerate to other road users. Dazzle them with your skill and planning, not your badly adjusted lights.

Richard Gladman, IAM RoadSmart’s head of driving and riding standards.