LED Lighting -Safety Concerns and Potential VHF-FM Radio/AIS Reception Degradation

Night time navigation requires good sea legs, adaptive night vision, and skills with navigation equipment/charting techniques.  These skills take time to develop, taking into account changing water and weather conditions, traffic, and local etiquette.

New technology has helped improve safety in many areas and created new concerns in others.  Take for example LED lights.  LED lights have become increasingly popular in the last decade, and decreasing cost added with the “coolness factor” are adding to their appeal.  But if you’ve ever been “blinded by the light” it quickly becomes less about being cool and everything about your own operational safety.   For example, many boaters head out before dawn to find a prime fishing spot.  Not unlike driving on the road, it’s easy to be blinded by other boats who are using LED lights, with the added complexity of reflection off the water.

Picture of LED Lights on a boat near Yaquina Bay near daybreak.

LED Lights on a boat near Yaquina Bay near daybreak.

In this picture, the boat is about 200 yards behind the transiting boat with forward-facing LEDs.  The first crest of daylight had already begun, so imagine complete darkness.  This intense lighting can temporarily blind other boaters for several minutes.   For boats where the LEDs are on their back deck facing straight backward, also makes it dangerous for boaters who may be following behind.

Another argument the Marine Board hears about pertains to violating the law because there’s no way that another boater can see their normal navigation lights with the LEDs activated.   On one hand, this is can easily be observed.  The LED lights overpower the red and green bow lights.  On the other hand, there may be more danger created by operating around these boats that cause other operators temporary blindness.

This concern also carries over to the boat ramp when boats have the LEDs on while backing down the ramp in the dark, and blinding everyone else trying to launch.  This scenario has actually played out, leading to physical altercations!

From the U.S. Coast Guard perspective, most LEDs don’t comply with lighting requirements and the directionality of the lights themselves cause concern.  Believe it or not, LED navigation lights, like life jackets, must be U.S. Coast Guard -approved.  Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 830.225 Lights; rules state: On all waters of the state, every boat shall carry and exhibit the lights required by rules promulgated by the State Marine Board.  Such rules shall be designed to prevent collisions and generally promote boating safety.  In promulgating such rules the board may consider lighting requirements and standards adopted by the United States Coast Guard and by federal Statutes [Formerly 488.041]. Oregon is not the only state that has brought safety concerns to the Coast Guard about LED lights over the last few years.

In another twist of events, the Coast Guard issued a Marine Safety Alert on August 15, 2018 “Let us enlighten you about LED lighting! Potential Interference of VHF-FM Radio and AIS Reception.”  Apparently, if the LEDs are installed near antennas, they interfere with radio signaling and increase the audio noise.  This can be a matter of life and death for mariners at sea where minutes matter.  The Coast Guard offered ways to test whether the LEDs cause interference and how to report the make and model of LED lighting and the radios affected, so they can better understand the scope of the problem.  (Click on the link above to learn how to report your testing.)

If you’ve invested in LED lights for your boat, be aware of the impact the lights have on others and your communication equipment.  The red and green directional bow lights and all-round white light provide the necessary intensity for the navigation rules of the road and allow boat operators to optimize their adaptive night vision.  The Marine Board encourages boaters to weigh anchor before activating their LEDs and to consider how the lights may be confusing to other boaters paying heed to the navigation rules.  The other factor is the real impact of temporarily blinding others.  We encourage LED-fitted boaters to be courteous to others and refrain from activating LEDs during launching, retrieving or transit.  Make sure your LEDs are U.S. Coast Guard -approved.  Test your LED lighting and your VHF-FM radio or AIS communication devices and make any modifications to improve the signaling.

Ultimately, everyone has an expectation when they’re going boating.  Whether it’s getting from point A to point B to find the prime fishing hole, or for play, no one wants to be “blinded by the light.”

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The Marine Board is funded by registration, title fees and marine fuel taxes paid by motorized boaters.  No lottery, general fund tax dollars or local facility parking fees are used to support the agency or its programs.  Boater-paid fees go back to boaters in the form of boating safety services (on-the-water enforcement, training, and equipment), education/outreach materials, and boating access facility grants (boat ramps, docks, parking, construction and maintenance).  The Aquatic Invasive Species Prevention Permit program is dedicated funding to pay for border inspection stations, decontamination equipment, inspectors, and signage/outreach materials.  The Mandatory Education Program is self-supporting, and revenue helps pay for education materials and boater education cards.  For more information about the Marine Board and its programs, visit www.boatoregon.com.

 

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