Study finds road visibility made worse by sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks Height, high headlights causing excessive glare for other drivers

November 22, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DETROIT -- As sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks become bigger and more common, their height and high-mounted headlights are making visibility on the road more difficult for other drivers, particularly at night. Federal regulators are growing concerned.

The normal headlights of an oncoming full-size sport utility vehicle or pickup truck can create so much glare that they appear to car drivers as bright as high beams. When such a big vehicle follows a car at night, the car's rear-view mirror and side mirrors reflect very bright glare.

The high rear windows on sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, as well as minivans, can create another visibility problem. The bottom of the rear windows is typically 4 feet high, about the same height as the top of car windshields, preventing many car drivers from seeing traffic ahead.

Headlight glare appears to be the bigger problem. "It is incredibly distracting when you're on the road," said David Lichtenthal, an accountant in Marlboro, N.J., who drives a Mercury Mystique sedan. "Sometimes I wind up pulling over to the right to let the sport ute pass me."

Full-size sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks tend to have headlights 36 to 39 inches high -- the same height as the side mirror on a small car like a Dodge Neon. Glare is 10 to 20 times worse than recommended levels when headlights are at the height of a driver's eyes or side mirror, according to a study by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Glare and visibility problems are likely to increase as pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles become much more common. Such vehicles account for half of new family vehicle sales, up from 16 percent in 1971. Sport utility vehicles and pickups are growing bigger, with higher headlights and rear windows.

Federal regulators are "fairly likely" to take action on light-truck headlight glare in the next two years, said Stephen Kratzke, director of crash avoidance standards at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency may require that light-truck headlights be mounted lower or aimed downward.

"It's a real issue; it's something we're aware of," Kratzke said. "We'd like to do something to address that glare; we've seen it."

Federal regulators say that they have some concerns about the variation in vehicle heights. But they are unlikely to set new rules because they have received few written complaints from drivers and because they cannot calculate the effect on safety.

Using state and local data, the federal government keeps track of dozens of variables on fatal crashes across the country. But these variables do not include glare or the effects of nearby vehicles' high windows because these are hard for police officers to assess when they arrive after an accident.

Automakers say that neither problem can be too serious because the overall death rate edged down last year. But regulators attribute the decrease to less drunken driving.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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