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How to see better when driving at night

Winter’s shorter days likely mean your evening (and maybe even morning) commute is in the dark. Driving at night can be a challenge, particularly for older adults. J. Michael Roach, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Piedmont, says nighttime vision is difficult because humans haven’t adapted to see well in the dark.

“We’re daytime creatures,” he says. “Until the invention of the light bulb, people generally went to bed when it was dark, so our eyes aren’t engineered to function well at night.”

Here are three of major reasons why you’re having trouble seeing after the sun sets.

Challenge #1: Anatomy

The eye’s retina is responsible for helping us see in a variety of light settings, from sunrise to sunset. The retina’s light receptors are made up of rods and cones. The cones help us see color and fine detail, and function best in well-lit settings.

When the cones don’t work properly, we have what is called a “central blind spot,” making vision difficult in the dark by reducing depth perception, color recognition and peripheral vision. This means you may not be able to accurately tell how close you are to another car or you may not notice someone walking along the side of the road.

Making matters more difficult is delayed dark adaptation, which means the eyes have trouble adjusting to dark settings after being exposed to light. Think about how hard it is to see after looking into a bright set of car headlights or at your smartphone in a dark room. It’s easier to see in the dark when your eyes have adapted to that particular set of lighting.

Challenge #2: Age

Children are much better at dark adaptation than adults.

“We start to lose function after age 30 and it gets worse with age,” says Dr. Roach.

Wearing glasses for distance while driving can help, as can following the practical tips below.

Challenge #3: Health issues

There are several health issues that affect vision, especially nighttime vision, including:

  • Cataracts. This common condition causes clouding of the eye’s lens. Those with cataracts can even experience a glare as light hits the lens and scatters. Cataracts are typically easy to treat with surgery.
  • Macular degeneration. This condition causes the retina’s cones to lose their function.
  • Dry eyes. Having dry eyes can create a glare that makes vision difficult. If you struggle with dry eyes, talk to your doctor about treatment options.

Your ophthalmologist can help treat these issues, which can improve nighttime vision.

Practical ways to improve vision at night

Dr. Roach recommends the following tactics to improve nighttime vision, particularly while driving:

  • Treat any underlying conditions, such as those mentioned above.
  • Have your vision checked to see if you need glasses or contacts. For some people, wearing glasses at night helps significantly.
  • Instead of looking directly into the headlights of an incoming car, look down and to the right with the right eye, focusing on the white line on the right side of the road. In severe cases, Dr. Roach recommends his patients briefly close their left eye to prevent the temporary blindness associated with seeing bright light at night.
  • Keep the outside and inside of your windshield clean. This makes a bigger difference than you may think – smudges, smears and dings can hinder your ability to see the road.
  • Turn down the lights in the cockpit of your car. Bright lights on your dashboard can disrupt your vision.
  • Make sure your headlights are clean and properly aligned.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Vitamin A in particular is key for good eye health and can be found in orange or dark green vegetables (like sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, spinach and kale), orange fruits (such as cantaloupe and peaches), milk, eggs and beef liver. If you are deficient in vitamin A or don’t eat well in general, consider taking a daily multivitamin.

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