Blinded by the light: Motorists' visibility affected by sun during Fall rush hour

October 24, 2012 10:23:28 AM



The leaves are really starting to change, you notice as you take another slight turn around a bend of tightly grouped trees on U.S. Highway 82. It's close to 7 a.m. and you're eastbound, headed to Columbus or point beyond. 


The morning coffee is in the cup holder, the radio dialed in to your favorite station.  


As you mount a hill, the morning shadows begin to fade. 


Then, at the crest of the hill, it happens: 


The morning sun breaks through the windshield and suddenly, you are blinded. 


"It's like playing a dangerous lottery," said Mississippi Highway Patrol Corp. Criss Turnipseed. "If there is another car topping the hill at the exact time, there might be a problem." 


Working as a MHP patrolman for 13 years, Turnipseed has seen a wreck for every type of condition, so to him, the sun is just another hazard drivers must consider. 


"I find ways to deal with it," he said, adding that reports listing sun glare as the legitimate cause of an accident are rare, but certainly not unheard of. 


"We get maybe one or so every year," Turnipseed said. "I don't think it's an epidemic or something that is really going to plague drivers." 


Turnipseed may have met the yearly average in one day last week -- an Oct. 16 wreck on U.S. Highway 82 that involved a small car rear-ending an 18-wheeler that had stopped for a school bus. Investigators believe the morning sun may have been a contributing factor.  


The driver of the car, Shavona Gibson, suffered a broken hip and leg and was taken to Oktibbeha County Regional Medical Center. According to the driver' statement and accident report, the sun had blinded her just before she rear-ended the semi-truck.  


The accident occurred in the eastbound lane at approximately 7 a.m. 


Daylight savings is coming to a close, and the early signs of Fall are settling in a little more each day 


But this cooler weather can come at a cost to a daily commuter's ability to see. 


Because of the earth's tilt and where it is in orbit, the sun is rising and setting more directly east and west than during summer months. The sun's rays are also hitting the earth a much lower angle. 


This can be a nightmare at peak travel times for drivers on any road that runs east and west. 


"Highway 82 is probably more prone than most highways this time of year," Turnipseed said. "And the mornings, yeah, during this time of the year, the sun definitely seems brighter on the way to work." 


But Oktibbeha County Fire Services Coordinator Kirk Rosenhan said sun glare is an issue year round, it's just that the problem areas differ, season-to-season and sometimes, hour-to-hour.  


"It not only has to do with the time of the day, but the time of the year, too," Rosenhan said. "You could be traveling north or south during the summer months around 1:30 or 2 p.m. in the afternoon and the sun could be hitting you directly in the eyes." 


Few real numbers are kept on the issue, but there seems to be a consensus that early Spring and the Fall are the times of year when glare is most prominent. The sun follows the celestial equator and rises more directly east and west during these periods than any other time of the year.  


Rosenhan echoed Turnipseed's sentiments about taking more of an active role in protecting yourself from outside factors like sun glare. 


"If you don't have a perfectly clean windshield, it will be giving off a horrible glare," Rosenhan said. 


He also said that simply being aware of visibility and slowing down when visibility is limited are two practices that, when ignored, increase the chances of an accident. 


"Slow your speed, put your sunglasses on and drop the sun visor," Turnipseed said. "It can be that easy. Just make sure you can see around the visor."