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Bright LED street lights causing cities, motorists consternation

We all say that we like streets to be brightly lit for greater driving safety at night. In the past few years many cities, including Sacramento and Davis, rushed to install LED street lamps.

The new-era lamps were brighter, they reduced energy costs, and they lasted longer than their predecessors - about 15 to 20 years, instead of two to five, like the old sodium lights. Many people like that the new LEDs spread illumination more evenly.

Sounds like a win-win-win-win, right?

Wrong. An American Medical Association report warns that high-intensity LED streetlights emit blue light radiation. We can't see this radiation, but it affects us, doctors say. It disrupts our sleep rhythms and - get this - affects our overall health in profound ways. It is even linked to increasing cancer and heart disease in communities that use this lighting.

Drivers complain that the brightness at times can be blinding. There is additional evidence that blue light LEDs make nighttime driving worse for some people. Young people with sleep problems seem especially affected by these lights outside their homes.

The LED lights have played a role in several personal injury cases nationwide -- drivers not seeing pedestrians or bicycles, or not seeing other vehicles lit up by the new light source.

The science behind the new lights

Lighting is measured by color temperature units called kelvins. The first generation LED streetlights ran hot, about 4000K. That intense color heat produces a bright white light with a high content of unseen blue light.

This is a problem because many cities in our region have converted at least partially to the new technology. The decision cities and counties are making is not to revert to old-style lighting, but to opt for an LED product that is not so bright.

Sacramento County, for instance, maintains about 22,900 street and safety lights countywide. Most of these are old-style, high-pressure sodium and mercury vapor bulbs. In recent months 3,660 have been switched to LEDs. In light of the AMA report, the county must now decide whether to change again to less blinding, amber-colored light.

In Davis, the city installed 650 new LED lights, only to be avalanched with complaints that the lights were too much. One resident described the light as more of a spotlight than a streetlight.

Street lights are an important factor in personal injury law. When a city or county doesn't provide adequate lighting, they open themselves up to lawsuits relating to driving safety.

But with the controversy about LED light technology, that simple world of litigation can balloon to include things such as night blindness and even life-threatening disease.

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