Police forces across the country are cracking down on tinted car windows. But what's driving the craze among drivers for a darkened view of the road?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
So there you are waiting at the lights in your standard-spec Ford Focus when another car pulls alongside. It appears the driver wants to share his music with you... and the rest of the neighbourhood.
But when you glance around, it seems he doesn't particularly want you to see inside his car. His windows are tinted. They are as dark as his alloy hubcaps are bright.
Over the last two years, police forces as far afield as Northern Ireland, Devon, Manchester and Strathclyde have been cracking down on tinted windows. The law states front windows must allow 70% of light through; the front windscreen 75%.
Yet there are illegal tints out there letting as little as 5% light through. Traffic officers believe such excessive tints are potentially dangerous, particularly at night, and they are increasingly armed with optical meters.
In Manchester, more than 2,000 fixed penalty notices have been issued to drivers of cars with excessively tinted windows since October 2006. Police have handed out 520 prohibitions, forcing drivers to take their cars off the roads while they have their windows restored, 80 of which were in the last fortnight.
Pc Dave Barrow, of Greater Manchester Police, says offenders break down into three groups.
"There's the innocent purchaser of a nice car where the garage have said we can tint the windows so it looks nicer. There are criminals who seek to hide behind the windows. The question is, what have you got to hide?
Fans try to emulate their limousine-carried idols
"Then there are the cars with loud music blaring and tinted windows are a bit of a fashion accessory."
Forces cite the fall-out from a serious accident involving a motorcycle and a car with heavily tinted windows, as the impetus for this current crackdown.
Peter Grunert, deputy editor of Top Gear magazine, blames an increasingly celebrity-obsessed media for driving the fad for tinted windows.
"People want some of that. Cachet is reflected in the cars they drive," he says. "Super-sized chrome rims, massive sound systems, DVD, and mystery glass, the full package. An element of that is coming over to the UK."
Go on a website advertising tinted windows and you'll see references to "a touch of distinction", and products like "light smoke", "midnight" and "limo".
Mark Needham, who promotes custom cars events, says tinted windows are the first port of call for any aspirant boy racer. He has them on his own car.
"It makes the car look a lot more stylish. Without tinting, you can see the seats and the rubbish strewn everywhere. You modify as much as you can within the law. But some people push the boundaries a lot," says Mr Needham.
The trend for even subtle tinting is a recent one. Once they were a swanky optional extra in the 1980s. Now most new cars come with almost the maximum legal tint as standard.
Anything beyond that tends to be added by specialist fitters, using films on the inside of windows.
Tom Hardyment, general manager of tint and security film specialists Pentagon, says his firm does 4,000 car tints a year.
But it's a myth that boy racers are driving demand. Instead, the typical customer is an affluent mother with small 4x4 or people carrier, who wants the back windows done to save the kids from sunburn and stop them getting grumpy in the heat. Other customers are government and business.
"It is growing, corresponding to sales of small SUVs. They are greenhouses on wheels. People like it, it protects their kids, they can watch their DVDs. It's 60% practical, 40% cosmetic. You've got a few people running around who reckon they are hoodies, running around spoiling it. People who have tinted front windows - it's stupid and illegal."
Rapper Busta Rhymes was pulled over for excessively tinted windows
But he still thinks a little dash of darkening is aesthetically pleasing.
"You can pretty much pick any car you like and the press shots will have very heavily tinted windows, including the windscreen. It lowers the roofline, gives it a more sporty look."
Kevin Wing, owner of the Tinted Windows Company in Watford, says the link between tinting and crime is a myth and instead points to supposed environmental benefits.
"It makes the car run more economically because you don't use so much air conditioning. I get a lot of customers who say I don't want to look like a drug dealer. But that's a myth. It would be a bit like having a robber with swag written on his bag. My main customer is a woman with a multi-passenger vehicle."
But Mr Wing admits he tints front windows and windscreens at levels greater than the law allows to be driven on the roads, insisting that many of his customers are using cars in adverts or shows.
"I try to angle people into having the legal limit... It is entirely up to you what you do with your vehicle on the highway. How can you tell if someone's going to use it for a show purpose or not?"
But just as police are getting wise to the trend, Steve Chalmers, editor of Fast Car magazine, says drivers' interest is starting to wane.
"I've been in cars with the heavy tints and it's very claustrophobic. I would say it is starting to die out slowly. It was a big thing a few years back."
Below is a selection of your comments.
"Instead, the typical customer is an affluent mother with small 4x4 or people carrier, who wants the back windows done to save the kids from sunburn"
Most ultraviolet radiation is blocked by glass. In particular those with shorter wavelengths, (UVB rays) do not pass through glass. Since UVB is the primary cause of redness and sunburn, I am at a loss why the children of these Chelsea-tractor driving mothers are defying the laws of physics and getting sunburnt through the window. Of course, the concerned parent could be worried about the effects of UVA rays, which have longer wavelengths and can make it through glass. UVA rays can cause skin ageing and research is now demonstrating that it may also be a risk factor for skin cancer and in addition to this some tinting process can make windows impenetrable to UVA rays. However UVA rays do not cause sunburn.
However, anyone who has sat through a GCSE physics lesson on ultraviolet should already know all this¿
Jonathan Pearson, Towcester, U.K.
There are regular arguments over tinting on automotive internet forums - people whining about getting pulled over because they've got their front windows tinted - it's like complaining because you've been pulled over for speeding - it's illegal, you've knowingly done something illegal and you've been caught. Shut up, frankly.
Quite why those people who tint their front windows are so ashamed of being seen out in their vehicle is a total mystery to me.
You can't get sunburn through glass. Although hats off to the fitter who takes a bundle off the 4x4 owner who doesn't know this.
My brother had his windows tinted because he doesn't want to wear a seat-belt!!
Pete, Stratford upong Avon
The link between criminality and tinted windows is just a myth. It's simply another revenue-making scheme for the police; yes, if your windows allow less than 70% of light through, you're technically breaking the law, but then if you gamble for money in your own home, you're also technically breaking the law. I really wish the police would spend less time on things like this and more time on the important issues affecting this country.
I admit that my windows are tinted more than the current law allows (they were like this when I purchased the car) but they in no way impede my ability to see... I think you'd have to have something like a 75% tint for it to actually prevent you from seeing properly. It does, however, impede people outside my car from seeing in and, let's face it, that's my personal choice.
I have the windows tinted on my LWB 4x4, from the B pillar back, all legal. It makes it look better and stops prying eyes looking into the back. My mother has even ordered tints on her new vehicle. I totally agree with the police crack down on these illegal side window tints. As a motorcyclist it's hard enough to be seen, but when someone is looking out of a side window with a limo tint on it their vision is vastly reduced and you have no eye contact with the driver.
There is a car driving around my home town with very dark tins on all the windows and the driver also have three quarters of his windscreen tinted from the top down! That car on a country road, a pedestrian with dark cloths on or a broken down or badly parked vehicle, well, disaster waiting to happen.
John Rymer, Carrickfergus. N. Ireland
I live in the Middle East where many cars are very heavily tinted, either to keep out the sun or for reasons of modesty.
The tints are lethal and are well established here as the cause of many severe accidents.
There have been countless occasions when drivers have gone through red lights - with fatal consequences - because the tint alters the appearance of colours.
Not only that, but being unable to see a driver pulling up to a junction as you drive along a main road means you cannot make eye contact and you cannot read body language to gauge their intentions.
Finally anyone who has been a passenger in a heavily tinted car at night - I have - knows that it makes pedestrians harder to see.
The blazing sun is partly an excuse for tints in the Middle East - there's no such excuse in the UK.
Lesley Cain, Dubai, UAE
What a refeshing change - car drivers being penalised for illegal tints. It's usually the (mainly) law-abiding motorcyclist who bears the brunt of the heavy-handed approach often adopted by the police for daring to wear a tinted visor for daytime riding in order to avoid being dazzled by the sun. Most are not illegal and a spare, clear visor is carried for when light and visibilty are reduced. Obviusly, this is so that we can ride safely and sunglasses are not always convenient.
When learning to ride my bike a useful tip was to use other vehicles waiting alongside me at junctions as windows in order to obtain a clear view of the traffic around me (useful advice for car drivers, too). However, this is impossible when surrounded by a growing number or cars with "blacked-out" windows and it's even harder to see around large 4x4s and people carriers .
Fiona Eagleton, Leeds
Tinted windows have been around since at least 1973. I remember the DIY paint-on kits and stick on film that you could buy, but even then there was a legal limit to how to dark they were allowed to be.
Susan Richards, Penarth, South Glam.
Tinted windows prevent a clear view of the other driver and thus facial expressions, gestures ¿ eye contact in general, often valuable indicators to the other's intention. In a complicated driving environment such clues are essential.
John Davis, Manchester, UK/Philadelphia, USA
As a cyclist/motorcyclist, I find it very useful to look drivers in the eye when they are waiting at junctions, to confirm that I have indeed been noticed. Tinted windows prevent this and are therefore dangerous from my point of view.
al, twells, uk
Many years ago (probably ten) people could drive what car they wanted in any colour they wanted without being labelled. Nowadays everything is aimed against car drivers, whether it be tinted windows, 4x4s, or where you are allowed to drive or park. We now live in a country where the police are only interested in motorists and the minority tell the majority exactly how and what they are allowed to do.
Pauline Paxton, London
I think complaining about tints is just another way of pursuing motorists whilst avoiding real causes. There are many benefits to tinted windows, as mentioned above, reduced glare, cooler ambient temperatures, and better protection to vehicle interiors. I haven't seen anyone stopped for their sunglasses to be checked and these often allow less light through than window tints. Where does the law stand on that?
"I get a lot of customers who say I don't want to look like a drug dealer [...] My main customer is a woman with a multi-passenger vehicle."
The perfect cover...
Seriously though, this protest smacks of racial profiling: no-one can "conceal their identity" from the police because they can check your plates... But how will they know if a car's being driven by a young black man if they can't see through the windows?
Ben, London, England
All windows on all cars should be clear plain glass, with 0% of allowable tint. The sun screen and enviormental reasons are simply excuses to 'hide'
Richard Gullick, Halesowen West Midlands