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                             Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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Troy, NY -  10/2/2003

Shedding Light on Emergency Vehicles

Are blue lights safer? How can we improve safety?

Researchers at the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have released a brief statement regarding emergency lighting for police cars and other emergency vehicles. The LRC seeks to encourage discussion based on facts rather than assumptions.

For more information, or to arrange to interview LRC researchers, please contact Keith Toomey at the Lighting Research Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 21 Union Street, Troy, NY 12180. Tel. (518) 687-7100, Fax (518) 687-7120, Email, Web LRC scientists are currently working on a number of transportation/vehicle-related lighting projects, including evaluation of HID headlamps for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Blue Lights and Police Vehicle Safety

On August 25, 2003, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued a legal opinion that New York State vehicles cannot legally use blue lights because this color is reserved for volunteer firefighters. Claims for the superiority of blue lights over those of other colors have been made, and in response, state Sen. Nicholas Spano of Westchester County has proposed a bill to permit the use of blue lights on police vehicles. But are blue lights really safer?

Color: The Wrong Tool for the Job

Reports of accidents involving drivers crashing into police vehicles as they are parked along the side of the road are all too common. The idea that blue lights might make a police vehicle more visible at first makes sense. There usually aren't many blue lights found along the roadway, and their uniqueness might be an extra benefit to a driver approaching a stopped police vehicle.

Research by the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has shown that while the color of a signal light can make a small difference in visibility when the signal is very difficult to see, the flashing and strobe lights found on emergency and hazard vehicles are designed to be very visible and stand out from their background, no matter what color they are. At these levels, color no longer makes an important difference. It simply is a tool to help us distinguish among different kinds of emergency or hazard vehicles.

Flashing Lights: Are We Overdoing It?

Plowing snow is a common activity in the Northeast, and snowplows are often equipped with flashing or strobe lights to enhance visibility. In a study of rear lighting on snowplow trucks, the Lighting Research Center found that people had much greater difficulty judging how fast they were approaching a snowplow from behind when flashing lights were used than when steady-burning lights were used.

The same principles apply to police vehicles and to any other emergency or hazard vehicle. Flashing lights are excellent "attention-grabbers," but they can sometimes overpower brake and tail lights on vehicles. When flashing and strobe lights are used, steady lights bright enough to be seen should also be used. These will help drivers make better judgments when they approach a stopped police vehicle, and can help reduce an important threat to our law enforcement officials.

About the Lighting Research Center
The Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is the world's leading center for lighting research and education. Established in 1988 by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the LRC conducts research in light and human health, transportation lighting and safety, solid-state lighting, energy efficiency, and plant health. LRC lighting scientists with multidisciplinary expertise in research, technology, design, and human factors, collaborate with a global network of leading manufacturers and government agencies, developing innovative lighting solutions for projects that range from the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to U.S. Navy submarines to hospital neonatal intensive-care units. In 1990, the LRC became the first university research center to offer graduate degrees in lighting and today, offers a M.S. in lighting and a Ph.D. to educate future leaders in lighting. Learn more at

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America's first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,900 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.