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Shedding Light on Hot, Dark Issue: Tinted Car Windows

October 14, 1989|CATHERINE M. SPEARNAK | CATHERINE M. SPEARNAK,

The California vehicle code, passed in 1961, allows drivers to tint the rear and side rear windows of their vehicles with any density of tint, from pitch-black "limo tint"--which allows only 5% of available light into a car--to more common tints that permit 35% to 75% of outdoor light.

Window tinting costs from $100 to $150 or more, depending on the size of the vehicle. Although state law forbids after-market tinting on front windows, it allows factory tinting on the windshield as long as the glass is 75% light-transmissible--a very light tint.

Federal guidelines set by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration let a driver tint all windows except the windshield as long as the material allows 70% light.

Most of the 35 states that allow window tinting abide by that rule--a less stringent one than California's but still not what manufacturers would like.

"Many of the states that don't know where to look for guidance follow the National Highway Administration standards," said Smith, of Martin Processing.

In 1985, Martin Processing and three other companies jointly commissioned the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute to study the safety benefits of window tinting.

The study took 1 1/2 years to complete and was used to write a petition, which was presented to the National Highway Safety Administration in August. It asks that guidelines be changed so that all vehicle windows can be tinted, except the windshield, with film that transmits at least 35% of available light.

When the CHP complains that tinting is unsafe not only for officers but for drivers, manufacturers wave their report, which says that drivers can see better through windows with a 50% tint than they could if the window weren't there.

They also push other safety and comfort features of window tint: keeping glass from shattering in an accident, cooling the vehicle by as much as 50%, reducing glare and improving visibility, and even forming a shield that can keep a passenger from flying through a window during a collision.

The CHP does not offer research to back up its concerns--mainly about driver's inability to see, other drivers' inability to see inside the car, and the belief that a driver with tinted windows cannot see if he is wearing sunglasses.

If the window tinting companies successfully change the federal law, Martin Processing may begin a campaign to pass new legislation in California, Smith said. He complained that, not only does California's law discourage many people from tinting because they don't like the look of a partly tinted car, but many consumers have been scared off by stories of ticket crackdowns.

Many drivers think it is illegal to have any tint on their cars at all, he said.

Until the law changes, neither the CHP nor the city attorney's office has any plans to let up on drivers such as LaBlanc and Shippen, or businessmen such as Jackson.

LaBlanc would like to see the law change, even though her husband is a police officer. She thinks the tinting is easy to see through and would not endanger his life.

Shippen, who was forced to remove the tint from two cars and a van, is still angry.

"I feel like it's selective enforcement. There are so many cars with tint on their windows that it gives the officer a lot of discretion to pull over whomever they want."

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