Highway Hypnosis May Affect Scene Lights

Highway Hypnosis May Affect Scene Lights

Byline: Douglas Page

Do emergency warning lights cause accidents that injure firefighters? The jury’s still out, but the Society of Automotive Engineers has been asked by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Department of Transportation to research how to effectively mitigate motorist disorientation caused by the use of emergency warning lights.

Motor vehicle accidents are the second leading cause of death among on-duty firefighters; an estimated 25% of firefighters killed in the line of duty are responding to or returning from incidents, with the majority of fatalities due to vehicle collisions.

SAE’s research will include the effects of emergency lighting on normal, impaired and drowsy drivers, also known as “highway hypnosis” or the “moth effect.”

New Jersey Turnpike officials came up with the term “highway hypnosis” nearly 50 years ago to describe the tendency for drivers to collide with vehicles stopped along the side of a highway.

Emergency vehicles with flashing warning lights such as fire apparatus, police cars and tow trucks seem particularly vulnerable, wherein drivers appear to be attracted to the flashing lights like moths to a porch light and somehow steer unconsciously off the road toward the light.

One 1982 Illinois State Police study found that police cars using flashing lights were more than twice as likely to be struck as patrol cars not using emergency warning lights.

SAE plans to examine all emergency lighting systems as part of this effort, including incandescent, halogen, strobe and light-emitting diode systems. The project was launched at the end of 2003 and is scheduled to run for 18 months.

“SAE has put together a team of industry and university experts who will study reports of accidents involving emergency vehicles, investigate and identify common elements in these incidents and then, if appropriate, attempt to apply engineering and science principles to mitigate future accidents via new standards or practices,” said Gary Pollack, SAE program manager of technical projects.

Pollack said SAE’s Emergency Vehicle Lighting Technical standards committee will be included in this effort, but SAE declined to speculate on what paradigm shifts in emergency lighting might be expected.

Findings from the project will be forwarded to national-level consensus standards organizations such as the NFPA and others in the development of relevant standards.

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