Flashing My Brights
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“Oh, sorry! I thought your brights were on!”

“Oh my gosh. I’m not a jerk—I just thought you hadn’t turned off your brights!”

“Sorrrrryy!”

These are a few things you might hear me say if you ever are in the car with me after dark, particularly if I’m on a mostly-empty Georgia highway and have just flashed my brights at other drivers.

Former night owl

When I was younger, I enjoyed night driving. My internal clock was set to night owl mode, so I could accomplish even longish drives past midnight without getting tired. As a kid, I fondly remember feeling so safe and cocooned in the backseat of the car, my dad driving us back from a family trip as the streetlights blinked, blinked, blinked outside the passenger window.

Nowadays, I don’t love long solo car trips as I once did, and even an hour or so after dark isn’t the pleasant escape it used to be. The main reason for my desire to get off the road once night falls is because of the dang headlights on other cars.

Bright lights

On a huge interstate, one’s eyes are somewhat protected by the bright lights of cars traveling the opposite direction: there’s a huge median, if not a concrete wall, between lines of traffic moving in different directions. In a more densely populated area where restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses have well-lit parking lots and signs up near the road, there’s a median level of ambient light that makes your fellow drivers’ lights not seem so offensive.

For me, the problem is with night driving on two- or four-lane state highways, where a double-yellow line divides the roadway and there are few, if any, street lights to speak of. In fall and early spring, I often find myself making the one-hour drive from a small town (where I provide books for author events) and my bookshop in Athens. I drive to these events in mid-afternoon, the sun illuminating the lovely farms and homes that dot the Georgia highways. The sun tends to be above my car, so I don’t have to deal with its rapid flashing from behind trees in my side window. The way home is a different story, though. From September until April or so, I usually leave the events right after dark. Until I reach the outskirts of Athens, I don’t encounter many other cars. There aren’t overhead street lamps, so my field of vision is restricted to what my own headlights illuminate. The darkness that surrounds me feels complete. That is, until I see the telltale sign that an oncoming car is about to reach the crest of an upcoming hill: beams of dusty light show up way ahead of me.

Sensitivity while driving at night

Here’s where I become the annoying fellow driver on the road: 99% of the time, I am pretty sure the car approaching me has its brights on. About 50% of those instances, I flash my brights to remind the person to turn off his high beams until he’s solo again. The vast contrast between the darkness that had enveloped me and this sudden, jarring brightness is too much for my brain to compute. Once in awhile, someone will flash their brights back at me, quickly showing me that her brights weren’t on, actually, and I was the one who just put unnecessarily bright visual stimulation right in her face. Oops.

I get nervous because this bright visual stimulation is one of my most frustrating migraine triggers, and I often worry that driving at night on dark roads will end up putting me in migraine mode.

As my brain and eyes age, it’s not only sudden assault of car lights emerging from the dark night that bothers me. I’ve also found that it takes me a beat or two longer to adjust to the dark once I turn out the lights; it also takes me a few seconds longer to get used to the bright outdoors if I’ve been inside for awhile. And, after years of reading with very low light (despite my mom and grandma telling me to turn on a lamp already), I now find that I need brighter light in order to read comfortably.

Does anyone else here have trouble driving at night? Do you have other issues or problems related to your eyes? What vision-related migraine triggers have you discovered, and how has your vision changed as you’ve aged?

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