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Tales From The Freeway

In the Dark : Tinted Windows Give Cars a Cool Look, But Some Are Illegal


Look cool, be cool, block out those uncool UV rays. Many Southern Californian's believe it an inalienable right--if not a full-time job--to follow the above credo. However, when motorists resort to tinting their car windows, the credo gets challenged.

Window tinting, a common and legal procedure in sunshine states such as Arizona and Nevada, is not such a crystal clear practice in California. The California Highway Patrol, for one, strongly discourages motorists from getting their windows tinted and there are penalties if it's not done properly.

So are tinted windows legal or not in California?

Yes and no, says John Marinez, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. Applying tinted film to car windows is not against the law, but there are some major restrictions that could result in citations and stiff fines if not obeyed.

Window tinting is covered in the vehicle code and has been enforced since 1961.

Car windows can legally be tinted behind the driver's seat only. The front-side windows (driver's and passenger's side) cannot be tinted.

The back window can be tinted only if the car is equipped with an exterior right-side mirror in addition to the required left-side mirror.

A six-inch-wide band can be tinted across the top of windshields, Marinez said. A rule of thumb is that tinting should not drop down further than the small arrows that are usually marked along either side of the windshield.

Are there any exceptions to the law?

Yes. Motorists can affix removable screens on front-side windows as long as they have a signed certificate from a medical doctor. Doctors' certificates or letters usually are issued to people with skin conditions that are ultra sensitive to the sun's rays and need as much protection as possible.

However, these removable screens must be taken down at night. Doctor's note or not, a motorist can be cited for those screens if they are up when the sun is down.

Why does the CHP bother pursuing the seemingly harmless practice of tinting windows?

From the CHP's viewpoint, tinted windows aren't harmless, for the officer as well as the driver. No matter what shade, tinted windows decrease a driver's visibility, especially after dark or if the driver is wearing sunglasses, Marinez said.

"The tint eliminates eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians, an essential aspect to defensive driving," Marinez added. "It is also hard for an officer to see into the car. A gun could be pointed at you. It puts you in a vulnerable position."

Marinez said officers can use the tinted window law to stop motorists for other suspected violations, such as not wearing seat belts. An officer who pulls over a car for illegal windows can either give a verbal warning or write a citation, but in most cases, you're going to get zinged.

What is the penalty for being caught with illegally tinted windows?

Most often, the CHP will issue a "fix-it ticket" the first time they stop a motorist for illegally tinted windows, said Marinez.

The fine for illegal windows varies from judge to judge, Marinez said, although $50 plus associated court costs could be considered a modest fine for a first offense. The fines go up each time a person is caught with illegally tinted windows.

The CHP does not keep statistics on how many citations they issue for tinted windows, but it is not safe to assume they are too busy enforcing other laws to notice your shaded windows. Marinez said officers daily pull over violators.

Installers also risk a ticket for illegal application, but because of limited resources, the CHP generally doesn't pursue them. Correcting the problem remains the driver's responsibility.

What are the advantages of tinted windows?

Privacy aside, significant advantages of window tinting are a reduction in heat and glare problems. Another plus, say proponents, is the unique, stylized look tinting gives a car.

If applied properly, tinting can last as long as 10 years. Many North County window tinters offer some kind of warranty, be it one year or for as long as you own the car.

How much does it cost to get your windows tinted?

At Sunroofs Unlimited/Aerotec on Miramar Road, windowing tinting can cost anywhere from $89 to $200, depending on the size of the car. The process of applying a thin layer of tinted vinyl to the inside of a car's windows can take less than a day to complete, said Bill Fedo, owner of Sunroofs Unlimited.

Tinting comes in the standard shades of light, medium and dark. However, if you want to operate a mobile casino from the back of your Hyundai and you need ultimate privacy, there is a shade called "limo tint" that is so dark even your own mother couldn't recognize you through it.

How much does it cost to remove tinting?

Fedo said it is very common for his company to remove an illegal tint from a window. Often his employees are removing the very tint they put on days or weeks or months before.

"Every day we probably do a removal job, mainly in the driver or passenger windows," Fedo said. "We warn everybody. If people want to put a tint on those illegal windows, we will put a tint on, but we do it with a warning."

At Sunroofs Unlimited/Aerotec, the cost of removing tint from the front windows is about $25 for both driver's and passenger's side. The price can go higher, $50 and more, depending on the number and size of windows needed to be stripped.

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