Road Safety: Headlight Glare

– in Westminster Hall am 11:00 am ar 8 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Ceidwadwyr, Cleethorpes 11:00, 8 Mai 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered road safety and headlight glare.

It is always a pleasure to serve when you are in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I know I am not alone in believing that modern headlights on cars can be too bright, causing discomforting glare for motorists and potentially increasing accidents. Many of my constituents have made their views known, following an article in my local newspaper the Grimsby Telegraph, which detailed the findings of a study by the Royal Automobile Club.

I am sure successive Ministers have been aware of and considered this issue, but I am disappointed that no action appears to have been taken until recently, when the Government decided to commission an independent study, following a public petition. I hope that by bringing this matter before the House, a meaningful series of exchanges with motorist organisations, road safety campaigners and others will follow.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this forward. Back home, this is a big issue for many of my constituents, when they observe what they refer to as one-eyed monsters coming over the hill. These new headlights seem to have almost a searchlight quality. On another issue, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that learner drivers learn to drive in the dark? For new licence holders, learning to drive at night when a car is coming towards them can be overwhelming. Does he agree that there should perhaps be time in the driving licence application and instruction process to practise nighttime driving?

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Ceidwadwyr, Cleethorpes

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point. Nighttime driving is very different from normal daytime driving. Perhaps consideration should be given to whether that should be part of the driving test.

It is a statement of the obvious that vehicle headlights are crucial in enabling drivers to travel safely in the dark or in poor weather conditions. They are required to identify signs, bends, obstacles and other road users, pedestrians in particular, and to make their vehicle visible to others. Over the last 20 years, however, vehicle lighting technology has changed rapidly, from halogen to high-intensity discharge to light-emitting diodes. I appreciate that they are slightly different technologies, but I will use LED as an all-encompassing shorthand for the various alternatives.

In general, LED vehicle headlights are advantageous for sustainability and the driver’s view of the road ahead, but they do also cause problems. Although I intend to focus on high-intensity headlights, it is worth highlighting that dazzling taillights, front and rear indicators, fog lights and reversing lights may also cause concerns about glare in various situations.

Dr John Lincoln of LightAware explains that, although the human eye can adapt to a wide range of light levels, from bright sunlight to almost total darkness, it cannot adapt in a short space of time. Comfortable vision requires a limited range of light levels at any particular time. LED vehicle headlights are much bluer and brighter than the halogen headlights of the past. Halogen headlights are usually around 3,000 lumens, but LED lights are commonly double that, with a colour temperature of 6,000 Kelvins, which is much bluer than that of halogen bulbs.

In January, the RAC published the results of research conducted with 2,000 drivers. It found that 89% of drivers think that some or most vehicle headlights on the UK’s roads are too bright, while 74% said that they are regularly dazzled by them while driving. What is more, it has probably not gone unnoticed that there are a lot more large cars on the roads nowadays. Sport utility vehicles sit high off the ground and are particularly likely to cause glare. About six in 10 drivers of conventional vehicles blame the higher angle of SUV headlight beams. All that ought to suggest that vehicle headlight design needs a rethink.

Although the hazard caused by headlights is primarily due to unregulated luminance and blue wavelength light, as existing standards largely predate modern vehicle designs, some may argue that it would be best simply to enforce the highway code, rule 114 of which states:

“You MUST NOT use any lights in a way which would dazzle…other road users”.

Personally, I would show caution here. Much of the issue is down to new, supposedly intelligent technology that largely takes control of the headlights from the driver. Although the driver can override the technology, it can be difficult to know when to do so. I would much rather see that resolved by fixing technology than by punishing motorists, who may be unaware of the issue that they cause, not to mention the fact that it would be practically impossible to police, as we know that officers cannot be on every corner.

In built-up areas, sleeping policemen, or speed bumps, cause oncoming vehicles suddenly to angle upwards, frequently shining their headlights directly into the eyes of oncoming traffic. Similarly, a driver properly in control on a dark country road can see vehicles approaching and dip their full-beam headlights, even if other vehicles are around the bend or over the brow of a hill. Matrix lighting systems are LED headlights made up of multiple units, and portions of the lamp can switch on and off automatically depending on road conditions, but they do not have human anticipation and switch off only when they directly sense the oncoming headlights, which can be too late to avoid blinding the oncoming driver.

Having set out to raise the issue, I consulted with a range of organisations, such as the RAC, the College of Optometrists and LightAware, which have done their own research into the matter. I also point to the noble lady Baroness Hayter, who has been campaigning on this issue in the other place. All of them told me that this is a very real issue for all motorists, but particularly those over 60, about half of whom, according to the College of Optometrists, have early-stage cataracts in one or both eyes, which make them even more vulnerable to the glare from bright headlights.

LightAware reports that, as a result of headlight glare, many drivers are restricting themselves to driving in the daytime and purposely avoid driving at night. The RAC’s study found that as many as 14% of drivers aged 65 or over—more than one in 10—find glare such a problem that they have stopped driving at night. That has two primary impacts. First, the individual is less able to get out and less flexible in making medical appointments or seeing friends, leading to increased social isolation. Secondly, it reduces the number of reports into the issue of headlight glare, making it appear to be less of an issue than it really is.

Data from the United States shows that up to 15% of accidents are caused by glare from headlights—which, given its stance today, makes the Department for Transport look like it is frankly in a state of denial. The DFT has stated that its statistics show little or no contribution from dazzle to collisions, despite the fact that official Government data shows that, since 2012, there has been an average of 279 collisions a year where dazzling headlights were a contributing factor. Of those, six were fatal collisions. Given that many are no longer driving at night to avoid the problem, the figures would almost certainly be higher if those people were to travel after dark. The DFT’s stance is also unfounded given that, as far as I am aware, it has not undertaken any research. I am pleased that that is due to change once the independent study gets under way. When the Minister responds, I hope he will start by acknowledging the problem and expand a little on the Department’s plans for that research.

The Minister will be aware that others have done their own research already. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents states that

“between the ages of 15 and 65, the time it takes to recover from glare increases from one to nine seconds.”

When travelling at 30 mph, that equates to travelling 13 metres for a young person and 117 metres for someone aged around 65. At 60 mph, that equates to an older person travelling 229 metres. Imagine the potential damage that could be caused by travelling 229 metres while visually impaired.

Plainly, this is not a problem reported just by UK drivers. I have mentioned the case of the United States. Similarly, a number of RAC-equivalent organisations around the world have conducted their own studies and reached the same conclusions. Organisations in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are finding the same results across Europe, based on substantial levels of response from their club members, who are calling for effective measures to substantially reduce the glare caused by road vehicles.

I make that point to highlight the scale of the problem. However, I trust that the Minister will not present that as a reason why change is not possible. The UK can certainly play a part in addressing the wider issue, but it is also something we can address alone, using our own laws and regulatory frameworks. A group chaired by Baroness Hayter produced a report featuring contributions from drivers, light experts and consumer champions. They reviewed information from optometrists, medical experts and European specialists, as well as transport research, and made recommendations to Government—a number of which I will put to the Minister directly.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this timely debate. He will be aware that the investigation concluded that 44% of drivers think dazzle could be caused by badly aligned headlights. Does he agree with me that there is more that MOT centres across the United Kingdom could do to ensure that lights are aligned adequately?

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Ceidwadwyr, Cleethorpes

That was a timely intervention from the hon. Member, as I was coming on to mention MOTs. The first point I put to the Minister is that he should bring together car manufacturers, the lighting industry, eyecare professionals, neurologists, driving organisations and other interested parties to gain a broader understanding of the problem of headlight glare and its true causes.

Secondly, the Minister should direct the National Institute for Health Protection, or another suitable body, to sponsor research to establish how vehicle lighting is causing discomfort in drivers, other susceptible individuals, and road users, such as cyclists and pedestrians. Thirdly, the research should be used to develop a set of realistic safety standards for headlights and other vehicle lighting, and to outlaw those that do not meet the standards.

Fourthly, legal limits should be set for the amount of blue light that vehicle headlights can have in their spectrum by setting standards for their colour temperature. Fifthly, as Carla Lockhart has said, garages undertaking MOTs should be provided with guidance and training on how to recognise inappropriate after-market installation of LED bulbs and ensure that such cars fail their MOT. My sixth point is that the matter should be raised internationally, via the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Working Party 29, and a request made that the informal working group on glare prevention be revived.

Two things are clear to me. First, car headlights should be better regulated to reduce the dazzle they cause to oncoming drivers. Secondly, it is not sustainable for the Government and the car industry to say that there is not a problem when the vast majority of motorists know that there is one, not just here in the UK but around the world. Is the Minister going to do what eight out of 10 drivers tell the RAC they think he should do, and take action to reduce headlight glare? The RAC thinks that the Minister will probably reply by saying that the UNECE has agreed that all new vehicle models introduced from 2027 will need to have automatic headlamp-levelling systems.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. On that point, vehicle manufacturers are tied to a legal limit of 4,200 K, but bulbs can be retrofitted up to 6,000 K; there should be some legislation to ensure that that is addressed. I put a car through an MOT last week, and I know that all that is checked is that both lights are working and aligned within a certain parameter. That does not tell us the temperature of the light. Car headlights can be bought on eBay that go up to 6,000 K—they are illegal and not for road use, and that should be stated on the seal, but it is not in many cases. That is part of the problem.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Ceidwadwyr, Cleethorpes

My hon. Friend makes the case that I previously mentioned: there need to be more regulations than the simple MOT test as it is at the moment.

The problem of glare is affecting people now; and with drivers holding on to their vehicles for longer, it is going to be well into the next decade before any benefits—if there are to be any—are seen by road users. The 2027 date only applies to new vehicles, so if a current model is not due to be replaced until several years after 2027, it will only be at that point when it is fitted with the technology. The RAC is not aware that new lighting technologies, like LEDs, have been analysed in deciding that automatic headlamp levelling systems are the answer to glare. I hope that the Minister will give a positive response and say that the Department will indeed take the matter much more seriously than has been the case in the past.

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 11:16, 8 Mai 2024

It is wonderful to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate my hon. Friend Martin Vickers on securing this timely and important debate about headlight glare. To cut to the chase: he asked me a question, and the answer is yes—but I had better expand on that a bit. I notice glare as a driver myself, I get a huge amount of correspondence about it from Members and constituents, and I spend a lot of my time as a Minister answering letters about it, so I know that it is a real issue and one on which the Department has done quite a lot of work. I will come to that work in a moment.

A lot of interesting points have been raised in the debate. I will start by saying a couple of words about road safety in general. The UK already has some of the world’s safest roads, as international statistics show, and we take road safety very seriously.

Photo of Andrea Jenkyns Andrea Jenkyns Ceidwadwyr, Morley and Outwood

According to the latest figures in my area of Leeds, there were 1,585 personal injury collisions in the last year. I am sure that people right across the House agree that far too often we contact our local councils’ highways departments, but they will not even look at putting in speed cameras to prevent accidents due to speeding because they want an accident to happen first. Does the Minister agree that we need to look at new ways to prevent accidents and save lives?

Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I agree that we absolutely need to be proactive. I will take away my hon. Friend’s comments and write to her on that point.

The Government have allocated £185.8 million local authorities via the safer roads fund to improve the safety of 99 of the most high-risk A roads. More widely, the Department is supportive of driving generally. We launched the plan for drivers in October last year, setting out 30 measures to help driving and with drivers’ concerns.

Glare from headlamps is a perennial issue—it has been around for a long time—but there is a compromise between providing illumination with sufficient intensity and distance to enable drivers to see and anticipate potential hazards, and the propensity to cause glare for other road users. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes recognised, there is a clear balance to be struck. In order to strike the right balance, all vehicle headlights are designed and tested to follow international standards—developed, as my hon. Friend said, under United Nations rules to ensure that they are bright enough to illuminate the road ahead but do not affect the vision of other road users.

The standards define the beam pattern, and include maximum and minimum light intensities: down on the ground, at a higher level and what would be seen at the driver’s level. The colour of the light is also regulated. The rules are neutral on the form of light, so they apply to LED lights as much as to halogen lights or any other form of light. As I mentioned, lots of people are raising concerns about headlight glare, and we are told—I know this too from friends and relatives—that drivers choose not to drive at night because of the effects.

One challenge that the Department has, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes referred to, is that police collision statistics do not indicate an increase in accidents caused by headlight glare, although the concern is very real. My hon. Friend mentioned Baroness Hayter; she has written to me with many questions on the subject, which we have been answering. The actual figures are that in 2021, there were 208 accidents where dazzling headlights were cited as a partial cause. That was down from 373 in 2005. We have the statistics for Cleethorpes, which I thought my hon. Friend might be interested in: from 2013 to 2022—so in the last 10 years —there were five accidents where dazzling headlights were cited as one of the causes, which is obviously five too many. That does not mean that the statistics are perfectly accurate. My hon. Friend cited some statistics from the United States; I am not sure about that methodology.

Glare is, however, clearly problematic for drivers for all the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned. The Department has not been inactive on the issue. Over recent years, it has raised the issue at the United Nations international expert group on vehicle lighting. Following lengthy and significant negotiations, proposals to mend headlamp aiming rules were agreed in April last year, together with requirements for mandatory automatic headlamp levelling, which is a system that automatically corrects the aim of headlamps based on the loading of a vehicle—for example, when passengers are sat on the backseat or there is luggage in the boot.

Some cars have manual headlamp levelling, but very few drivers know to set it, so when somebody sits on the backseat and the car lifts up slightly, they will not dip their headlights further. The point of automatic levelling is to correct that. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the new requirements are expected to take effect only on new vehicle types from September 2027, which is necessary to give vehicle manufacturers time to redesign their products and incorporate those designs into the manufacturing process. Vehicle manufacturing is a long lead-time industry, and it is basically impossible to make instant changes, but once the tougher measures are implemented, they will hopefully help to alleviate the number of cases where road users feel dazzled by vehicle headlamps.

There is still much that we do not know about the underlying causes, which my hon. Friend mentioned. In the Department, we accept that there is an awful lot going on that we do not know about, which is why we have commissioned the research. I accept from the volume of correspondence I receive that concern about headlamp glare is rising, but we do not know why that is. My hon. Friend mentioned that older drivers are more susceptible to dazzle, which is probably true, and the number of older drivers is growing rapidly. The number of people over 70 who are still driving has risen by 50% over the last 10 years. Driving has become easier because of power steering, automatic cars and a whole load of other safety features, and people feel confident to drive later in life even though they might be more prone to dazzling.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, things such as road humps are a cause of dazzling as the car lifts up, and I am guessing that there are a lot more road humps now than there were 10 years ago. Various hon. Members mentioned retrofitting. There are rules on retrofitting: it is illegal to retrofit a lightbulb that is more powerful or a different colour. The question is whether those rules are fully enforced, which is something I want to find out through the research.

We will be commissioning the research shortly, so this debate is very timely because it is exactly now that we are thinking about the scope. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes made a lot of interesting suggestions about the sort of people who should be consulted and involved, and my officials will be taking on board everything he said. The research will include real-world trials to test the impact of different light technologies under different scenarios, and driver and vehicle characteristics, to fully understand the root causes of driver glare and how significant it is. We welcome input from relevant experts in the area and those taking part in this debate.

Once the research has been completed, the Government will consider the outputs fully and share them within the UK and with international lighting experts, as my hon. Friend requested. Once we have that research, we will look at whether there need to be any other changes to rules and regulations, and we will discuss that at international level. We will do everything we can to reduce the problems of driver glare, and ensure that our roads are safer and that people can continue to drive for as long as it is safe for them to do so. I am personally determined that the only way the people in the constituency of Cleethorpes should be dazzled is by the wit and wisdom of their Member of Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.