In a forest clearing in the dead of night, the landing alien spaceship kicks up a flurry of leaves, with its multitude of landing lights repelling the darkness.
The camera moves to the main character, who watches in awe at the massive extraterrestrial craft. But she is also watching with an arm in front of her eyes to protect herself from the blinding beams from above.
This scene is familiar even outside of alien movies. But instead of looking at a spaceship filled with creatures unknown, motorists sometimes drive or ride with an arm up because of a passing car or motorcycle equipped with light-emitting diode (LED) light bars that seem to be aimed straight at their retinas.
Although Section 34 of Republic Act 4136 or the Land Transportation and Traffic Code allows motor vehicles to be equipped with lights in addition to the required headlights, taillights and signal lights, these must (like headlights) be dimmable or can be tilted downward so that other road users won’t be dazzled. In light of the increasing cases of “blinding” LED lights, Land Transportation Office (LTO) chief Roberto Cabrera 3rd issued a memorandum in January this year authorizing the apprehension of motor vehicles equipped with these lights.
The memorandum is pursuant to a 2014 administrative order issued by the Department of Transportation and Communications. Section 2 of the order metes out a P5,000 fine to drivers of motor vehicles with modifications that are prejudicial to road safety and also gives the government, though the LTO, the authority to confiscate these modifications and even impound the vehicle until it complies with set vehicle standards.
However, the memorandum stirred controversy because it used the term “LED lights,” such that it seemingly applies to all LED lights installed on cars and motorcycles, even those that come as standard equipment. Fast Times reached out to Cabrera several times to clarify the meaning of the memorandum, but he has not responded as of press time.
What is an LED?
Unlike halogen or xenon light bulbs, where electricity is run through a filament to produce light, a light-emitting diode works by running electricity through a semiconductor material. As a result, LEDs are considered as one of the most energy-efficient light sources because they consume less electricity, produce less heat, last longer and give off a more powerful light than traditional light bulbs. Likewise, the compact design of LEDs means these can be used in a variety of applications.
Indeed, vehicle manufacturers have been switching to LEDs over the past decade, using these for car headlights, motorcycle taillights and even car interior lighting. In addition, many modern cars are equipped with LED daytime running lights, which are important safety features because they alert road users with low or impaired vision to a vehicle’s presence.
Good intentions, controversial implementation
Fast Times talked to stakeholders in the issue, who all had mixed reactions to the LTO memorandum.
Motorcycle Rights Organization (MRO) legal counsel and motorcycle rider Israel Calderon said although he understands the LTO’s need to regulate LED lights, the current memorandum is problematic.
“It is too vague and all-encompassing,” he said. “As is, it will be subject to abuse by LTO officers,” he said.
Calderon also said the memorandum is unfair because it doesn’t do anything about aftermarket vendors of these purportedly harmful products. “So drivers and riders buy these LED lights, which have passed quality-control standards to make them fit for sale, only to be punished for using these on the road,” he said.
Edralin Magno, owner of Carworld accessories shop along Tandang Sora in Quezon City, said LED lights are popular aftermarket accessories because these not only help drivers who can’t see very well with their vehicle’s regular headlights, but these are also cheaper than high-intensity discharge (HID) light bulbs. He said the LTO’s order has led to lower sales in LED lights.
“I’m not in favor of the memorandum because it hurts our revenue,” he said. “But there are some road users, such as motorcyclists, who have these lights installed too high. However, LED lights are very useful, especially when driving at night along unlit provincial roads.”
For John Uy (not his real name, which has been concealed for security reasons), the memorandum would have been unnecessary if road users just followed existing laws on vehicle modifications. He said when he switched his 4×4’s headlights to a projector set-up, he and the automotive electrician simply read the owner’s manual to properly set the beam.
“Improve driver education, especially on provisions of RA 4136, and we won’t need any more of those memorandums.” he said. “Also, the fact that the government needs to release a new memorandum every now and then shows how poorly it implements even the most basic traffic rules.”
Meanwhile, Automobile Association of the Philippines president Gus Lagman said he understands the LTO’s position in issuing the memorandum.
“A blanket memorandum would be easier for the LTO because of the difficulty in enforcing stricter standards,” he said. “Car headlights are designed to be pointed slightly away from the oncoming lane to not only light the shoulder of a road, but also to prevent dazzling other drivers. Many of these LED lights, however, are really blinding.”
Lagman also said he believes the memorandum only covers aftermarket accessories since manufacturer-installed accessories are not considered as modifications. “Besides, it would be easy for the LTO to control manufacturers by disallowing the sale of a certain model unless it is standards-compliant,” he said.
Be more specific
Despite the difference in opinion, all four agreed that the current LTO memorandum should be amended to include stipulations on brightness and direction so that it only penalizes drivers with non-compliant LED lights. Lagman said a certification system could help ensure compliance to these stricter standards.
In South Australia, LED light bars had been banned on vehicles manufactured from 1991 for violating a traffic law that required driving lights to come in pairs. However, that law has been amended to include the following standards:
The light or lights must be installed to be forward facing and in a position that does not obscure the driver’s view of the road ahead;
The lights should, as far as is possible, be installed symmetrically in pairs of between two or four lights;
If the lights are not fitted as pairs, they must be fitted symmetrically about the center line of the vehicle;
The lights may be fitted to the roof of the vehicle;
The light or lights must not be fitted or be used in any way that is likely to dazzle another road user and must be installed in a way that the light produced does not cause the driver of the vehicle discomfort either directly or by reflection;
The light/s must only come on when the main-beam (high beam) headlights are used, and must automatically turn off when the main-beam headlights are turned off; and
The driving lights may be fitted with an isolator switch to allow high beam to be switched on without the driving lights also being switched on.
Calderon said he and the MRO have been in continuous talks with the LTO on this matter. A February 9 update posted on the group’s Facebook page said the agency has agreed to not apprehend vehicles with LED lights if: (1) the unit is off, (2) only one unit is in use, and (3) the brightest luminescence on the ground does not exceed 10 meters.
Calderon also gave Fast Times a copy of a December 2015 reply by LTO Field Enforcement Division officer-in-charge Pascual Delos Santos to a letter that Calderon sent the agency in October that year. Delos Santos said LED lights on motorcycles are allowed, so long as the colors comply with those stipulated in RA 4136.
For his part, Magno said he is willing to comply with additional standards, which can give his shop ammunition when dealing with customers who often want the lights installed wrongly.
“We are helpless against these people,” he said. “It’s either we comply with what they say or we lose sales. In the end, though, we will follow the law.”