Ecological impacts of light from vehicles

Gaston, K.J. & Holt, L.A. 2018. Nature, extent and ecological implications of nighttime light from road vehicles. Journal of Applied Ecology, in press [online early view].

1. The erosion of night-time by the introduction of artificial lighting constitutes a profound pressure on the natural environment. It has altered what had for millennia been reliable signals from natural light cycles used for regulating a host of biological processes, with impacts ranging from changes in gene expression to ecosystem processes.
2. Studies of these impacts have focused almost exclusively on those resulting from stationary sources of light emissions, and particularly streetlights. However, mobile sources, especially road vehicle headlights, contribute substantial additional emissions.
3. The ecological impacts of light emissions from vehicle headlights are likely to be especially high because these are (i) focused so as to light roadsides at higher intensities than commonly experienced from other sources, and well above activation thresholds for many biological processes; (ii) projected largely in a horizontal plane and thus can carry over long distances; (iii) introduced into much larger areas of the landscape than experience street lighting; (iv) typically broad ‘white’ spectrum, which substantially overlaps the action spectra of many biological processes; and (v) often experienced at roadsides as series of pulses of light (produced by passage of vehicles), a dynamic known to have major biological impacts.
4. The ecological impacts of road vehicle headlights will markedly increase with projected global growth in numbers of vehicles and the road network, increasing the local severity of emissions (because vehicle numbers are increasing faster than growth in the road network) and introducing emissions into areas from which they were previously absent. The effects will be further exacerbated by technological developments that are increasing the intensity of headlight emissions and the amounts of blue light in emission spectra.
5. Synthesis and applications. Emissions from vehicle headlights need to be considered as a major, and growing, source of ecological impacts of artificial night-time lighting. It will be a significant challenge to minimize these impacts whilst balancing drivers’ needs at night and avoiding risk and discomfort for other road users. Nonetheless, there is potential to identify solutions to these conflicts, both through the design of headlights and that of roads.