- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

DETROIT An automotive supplier says it has developed a product that could make a dim memory of a common annoyance on the road: oncoming drivers who don't switch off their high beams.
Gentex Corp. says its SmartBeam system uses an image-sensing semiconductor to automatically dim a vehicle's headlights when it detects other vehicles' headlights or taillights, and to activate the high beam when no other traffic is present.
SmartBeam is still being refined. But Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury division expects to make it available on Lincoln vehicles starting in the 2004 model year, Gentex said in announcing the system at Monday's session of the Society of Automotive Engineers 2001 World Congress here.
"Lincoln is about effortless, rewarding motoring," said Al Kammerer, director of product development for Lincoln-Mercury. "And technologies like SmartBeam com-plement our brand because they make driving safer and more enjoyable."
Gentex said it hopes to limit the cost of SmartBeam to between $150 and $200, making it affordable for buyers of less costly cars, spokesman Craig Piersma said.
SmartBeam will slowly fade headlights off and on "to make the transition from low to high beams and back again less distracting and more aesthetically pleasing," Gentex said. But it will immediately dim headlights if oncoming traffic appears suddenly, as on corners or hill crests, the company said.
Many drivers now hesitate to use their high beams out of concern that they will forget to dim them when traffic approaches, Gentex said. The company cited a U.S. Department of Transportation study showing that, on average, drivers use their high beams less than 25 percent of the time in appropriate conditions.
Increased use of high beams could make nighttime driving safer for those in and out of vehicles, said Kenneth La Grand, the company's executive vice president.
"Pedestrians and cyclists on the roads at night are at especially high risk due to the limited visibility of motorists," he said. A recent University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study found that pedestrians are about four to six times more vulnerable at night than during the day, he said.
"Low visibility is an even greater factor in nighttime pedestrian deaths than alcohol consumption."
A traffic-safety expert said SmartBeam wouldn't be needed if all drivers were more alert and considerate.
"People ought to be attentive to their driving and be respectful of other drivers out there," in part by using high and low beams correctly and consistently, said Dick Miller, community safety services manager for AAA Michigan.
But for those who don't, he said, an automatic system "may be a plus."

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