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Here's What Happens To Your Eyes At Night - And Why It Makes Driving In The Dark Difficult

Posted on December 5, 2023 by Henry Ford Health Staff

Driving in the dark can be challenging for a variety of reasons. Without daylight, streets can be too dark to see clearly. The glare from streetlights and cars’ headlights can be distracting—and can sometimes even temporarily blind you to what’s coming your way. 

While these conditions can be tricky to navigate at any age, driving at night can become even more problematic as we get older. “Many of the eye conditions people develop with age can also have an impact on their ability to see clearly at night,” says Lily H. Van Laere, M.D., an ophthalmologist at Henry Ford Health. 

Learn what’s happening to your eyes when it’s dark outside—and some steps you can take to be safer on the road at night. 

What Happens To Your Eyes At Night

When you’re trying to see in the dark, your pupils (the black dot in the center of your eye) dilate, opening up to let in more light. “In the daytime, when the pupil is smaller and more closed, light comes in just through the center of the eyes,” says Dr. Van Laere. “But at night, when the pupils are more open, light enters the eye from all directions, which can cause visual confusion.” 

Even without an eye condition, the glare this light creates can make it difficult to see clearly and can reduce your reaction time when driving at night. 

Eye Conditions That Make Night Driving More Difficult

While it’s not uncommon for young, healthy eyes to have some trouble seeing clearly at night, the problem does get worse with age—and age-related eye conditions. These problems can make it more difficult to see color variations, distinguish shapes and movement in low light, and see clearly in your peripheral (side) vision.

You may hear the term “night blindness” used to describe an inability to see clearly at night. The medical term for this is nyctalopia. “This isn’t a disease, but it is a symptom of some other eye diseases,” says Dr. Van Laere.

Eye conditions that can cause night blindness and make driving at night more challenging include:

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  • Cataracts: This condition typically develops in both eyes and makes the lens of the eye appear cloudy. Cataracts can cause blurry vision, trouble seeing well in low light and increased sensitivity to glare. “It’s like trying to see through a dirty windshield,” says Dr. Van Laere. 
  • Dry eyes: When your eyes aren’t producing enough moisture, it can impact not only how your eyes feel, but also how well you see. “When eyes are dry, the surface of the lens isn’t as smooth and that can cause more issues with glare,” says Dr. Van Laere. 
  • Glaucoma: This progressive disease damages the optic nerve. Over time, your peripheral vision gets worse. And that can make it even more difficult to see clearly when driving in low light conditions. “Light reflects more on the peripheral retina,” says Dr. Van Laere. “So eye conditions that affect the peripheral retina particularly impact night vision.” 
  • Needing corrective glasses or lenses: Not being able to see objects that are far away can obviously make driving unsafe. When it’s dark outside, you may notice your distance vision seems even worse. But far-sightedness or astigmatism can also interfere with your best vision. If you’re having difficulty seeing clearly, see your eyecare professional to get (or update) prescription glasses or contacts. 

How To See Better When Driving At Night

Many glasses marketed to improve night vision feature yellow or amber-tinted lenses. But Dr. Van Laere maintains that clear lenses are best. “You want something that lets in as much light as possible,” she says. “Any tint on the lenses reduces the amount of light into your eyes.” An anti-glare coating on your lenses may help a bit, she says. 

Having some difficulty seeing at night isn’t a reason to give up driving after dark. But you should take some extra precautions, such as:

  • Slowing your driving speed
  • Turning your head more to look side to side (this helps make up for reduced peripheral vision)
  • Keeping your contact lens or glasses prescription up to date
  • Paying attention to the size and thickness of your eyeglass frames. Wider frames can get in the way of your peripheral vision.

If your night vision worsens or you no longer feel you can safely navigate at night, it’s best to limit driving to daylight hours. 

Reviewed by Lily Van Laere, M.D., an ophthalmologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center - Royal Oak and Henry Ford OptimEyes Super Vision Center - Southfield. 

Categories : FeelWell

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