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Sight Unseen

Transcript from ABC News program "20/20" aired March 22, 1999
ABC News is hereby acknowledged for the following content.

Experts say sun glare or obscured night driving contributes to many deadly accidents.

Monday, March 22, 1999

(This is an unedited, uncorrected transcript.)

CHARLES GIBSON Right now, we’re going to put you in the driver’s seat of a car under some surprisingly hazardous conditions. Surprising, because these conditions have nothing to do with maneuvering through rain, sleet or snow. It turns out that on a bright, sunny day or a clear, starry night, you can still face danger behind the wheel. Michael Guillen looked into some of the unexpected reasons why. He’s also found a number of ways you can reduce the danger. They could save your life or someone else’s.

MICHAEL GUILLEN, ABCNEWS (VO) We all know it’s dangerous driving in the fog and rain. But even when the weather is picture-perfect, as the sun rises, moves across the sky and then sets, many drivers are suddenly discovering that they’re driving blind either because there’s too little sunshine or too much.

DOREEN CICCONE Oh, it was a beautiful day, crystal clear. I was just driving normal, thought I could see everything well.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) One day last spring, Doreen Ciccone was driving down Lancaster Street in Leominster (ph), Massachusetts, when all of a sudden ...

DOREEN CICCONE I heard a thump. And when I looked in my rear-view mirror, I saw somebody on the ground.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) Doreen had hit and killed an elderly woman who was crossing the street. Doreen never saw her coming.

DOREEN CICCONE They say that it was sun glare. I had no vision of seeing anybody. But yet, somebody was there. I guess I blame myself every day still for it.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) No one keeps precise numbers, but police say blinding glare like this is a lot more common and deadly than most people realize. Officer Michael Thomann (ph) investigated Doreen’s accident.

MICHAEL THOMANN, POLICE OFFICER I’ve seen it at least a half dozen times in my career on the job where somebody has actually died as a result of the accident. You can’t even count the number of accidents as a result of sun glare.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) It’s a familiar story. In California, a bus driver with sun in his eyes hits and kills a little girl. In New Jersey, a man blinded by the sun drives smack into an oncoming train. And in New York, glare is blamed when a truck driver accidentally hits a woman crossing the street. In fact, some cities are so worried, they’re putting up new warning signs like this.
     (on camera) Glare is especially bad in the early fall and early spring like now. That’s when the sun rises almost exactly East and sets almost exactly West. Now, for all the streets that are laid out in an East-West pattern, that’s a problem, because that means that during the morning and afternoon commutes, you’re most likely to be driving directly into the sun.
     (VO) But the sun doesn’t have to be directly in your eyes to be dangerous. You can be blinded indirectly any time of the day by something called “veiling glare.” You know, those annoying reflections off the top of your dashboard. They dance across your windshield and obscure your view. Like a veil, you can see through it, but not very clearly.

CLARENCE DITLOW (PH), CENTER FOR AUTO SAFETY Veiling glare is something that a lot of consumers encounter, but until they’re told what it is, they don’t realize it.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) Clarence Ditlow is the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. Lately, he says, automakers have unwittingly done two things to make veiling glare worse. First, those sleek new windshields that look so nice? Well, they are aerodynamic and they make cars more fuel efficient, but they can be trouble. The problem is that when you tilt the windshield, the underlying dashboard naturally gets bigger and, therefore, becomes more reflective. The second problem is color.

CLARENCE DITLOW We have the auto manufacturers going to lighter colored dashes to match the color of the upholstery in the interior.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) And when you make the dashboard light colored, you make it even more reflective. For example, take a look through this windshield. Notice anything unusual? Probably not. But watch what happens when we put black felt on top of the light-colored dash. Suddenly you can see a child you couldn’t see before. She was hidden by veiling glare. Look at that again — without the black cloth and with.

CLARENCE DITLOW If you’re buying a new car today, particularly one that has a windshield that slopes back, avoid ones with light-colored dashes.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) Other tips? Well, avoid those popular vinyl cleaners that give your dash a high-gloss finish. Looks great, but they turn your dash into a mirror. And finally, to fight glare of all kinds, wear sunglasses made with polarized lenses. As you can see, ordinary lenses are not designed to cut through glare. Polarized lenses are. But the sun isn’t the only thing that can affect your vision. As it moves across the sky and begins to set, the problem of too much sunshine gives way to the hazards of not enough. Bob Daras (ph) of Commerce Township, Michigan, knows all too well the horrors of driving blind on a crystal clear night.

BOB DARAS I was in the right-hand lane. And we were going to the expressway, 696.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) It happened last fall, just after sundown, when Bob and Deborah, his high school sweetheart and wife of 28 years, were going out for the evening.

BOB DARAS Next thing I knew, the windshield exploded in my face.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) As he frantically pulled over to the side of the road, Bob suddenly realized he had hit a deer crossing the street in the dark.

BOB DARAS I didn’t even know it was deer until it hit me in the face.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) But the worst part came when Bob turned to his wife.

BOB DARAS I said, “Honey, are you OK?” And I seen something I can’t ever forget, because her face was tore like real bad.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) A day and a half after the accident, Deborah died from her injuries.

BOB DARAS She was everything to me. She was my best buddy. And I miss her. I really miss her a lot.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) Bob’s story is all too painfully common. Statistically, driving in the dark is three times deadlier than driving in broad daylight — three times. And no wonder. Our eyes were not designed to see in the night, certainly never meant to be watching for hazards while barreling down a darkened road at 50 miles per hour. And it only gets worse with age. As our eyes become less sensitive to light, we become more night blind.
     (on camera) So what can be done? Well, take a dark night like this one. The only reason you can see me is because I’m awash in TV lights. Lose the lights, and I disappear. But there is another way you can see me that doesn’t require ordinary light. Like now, you’re seeing me through the eye of an infrared camera that is sensitive to the heat radiating from my body.
     (VO) Incredibly, GM has mounted one of these infrared cameras onto the front grille (ph) of its Year 2000 Cadillac Deville. The video signal is carried to the dash and displayed onto the windshield. They let us film this futuristic car only in the dark, for fear of giving away the body design. And only on the inside, where we could see, right there on the lower part of the windshield, the roughly 4-inch by 10-inch infrared display. But wouldn’t that be distracting? I asked Cadillac chief engineer Ed Zellner (ph).

ED ZELLNER, CADILLAC CHIEF ENGINEER Imagine it just as a rear view mirror. The rear view mirror is also additional information that you need to drive. You glance at it occasionally. This is the same kind of a thing.

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) To put the system to the test , I was allowed to drive through an obstacle course set up along a very dark country road. With my regular view, I see nothing but darkness. But the night vision camera has spotted a problem up ahead.
     (on camera) There is something off to the side of the road, and it is moving, and I only have this night vision to guide me. It’s a woman with a dog.
     (VO) With the camera, I see the situation clearly a full 30 seconds before my naked eyes do.
     (on camera) And there they are. Wow.
     (VO) The night vision camera can see things up to five times beyond the reach of your headlights, giving you up to five times longer to react to a sudden hazard.
     (on camera) There is this car with brights. The camera, I discover, is also good at dealing with blinding high beams. There is somebody crossing this street, according to this night vision. But I cannot see a blasted thing with my eyes. And this is such a dark country road, I could not see that person. That is actually kind of spooky. That person would have probably been dead.
     (VO) A night camera is also great at detecting animals, like deer, which is crucial. Every year in the US, there are more than 300,000 car-deer accidents. Most happen at night, and many are fatal, as Bob Daras knows all too well.

BOB DARAS I never had a warning, nothing. I’m always trying to figure out where that deer came from, you know?

MICHAEL GUILLEN (VO) The night vision system has come too late to save Bob’s wife. But he’s heartened by the thought of anything that might help others steer away from the dangers that lurk in the dark.

CONNIE CHUNG Cadillac says its night vision system will cost around $2,000. Other car makers may offer a similar option in the near future. Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that driving slowly at night helps, and keep your windshield clean, day or night.

Contact Info:

Ralph Bouwmeester, P. Eng.
R. Bouwmeester & Associates
Barrie, Ontario Canada
Phone: 1-705-726-3392

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