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Too Many Drivers Are in the Dark About Window-Tinting Laws

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Its purpose is to keep things cool, not heat them up.

But if you bring up the subject of car window tinting in Orange County, be prepared to run for cover, because you could have anything from a hot discussion to an even hotter brawl on your hands.

A byproduct of that same burst of space-age technology that gave us Tang, computer chips and John Glenn, window tinting is a growing segment of what’s known as the automobile after-market, or the stuff you buy after you’ve bought the car (along with sheepskin seat covers, designer stereos and personalized license plate frames).

Tinting is especially popular in such places as Orange County, where the sun shows up to work a respectable part of its shift just about every day. Those giant cardboard sunglasses just aren’t enough, some drivers decide, so they pay from $150 to $200 to have the film, available in varying shades, applied to their car windows.

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Tinting also offers a modicum of privacy: You can see out, but nobody can see in.

Those are both reasonable, logical explanations. But they don’t begin to address the passion that surrounds the subject, or to explain why some otherwise mild-mannered types are willing to blatantly break the law for the sake of their darkened panes, with hardly an inkling of remorse. Nor do they justify the fact that arguments over the fine points of tinting have twice reached the California Supreme Court, even though the subject might seem more suitable for Judge Wapner’s television court.

Tinting is legal in California, but only on certain areas of the car, according to Ken Daily of the California Highway Patrol’s San Juan Capistrano office. If you have outside rear-view mirrors on both sides of your car, you can go as dark as you like on the rear window and side windows behind the driver’s seat, as well as a 6-inch strip across the top of the windshield. But the rest of the windshield and the front side windows must be clear--not even the lightest tint is permissible there.

Still, vendors routinely offer tinting for every pane of glass on the car, and most of their customers take them up on it.

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So many cars are in violation of that law, and so many drivers are confused about it, that this month the CHP sent out ominous letters to window-tint vendors and installers statewide, reminding them that drivers aren’t the only ones who can get in trouble over an improperly tinted vehicle.

“The CHP is very concerned about the recent increase in the number of vehicles with illegal after-market tinting,” the letter states. “As I’m sure you’re aware, California statutes specifically prohibit the installation, application or affixing of any material to the windshield or front side windows.”

The letter goes on to point out that because tinting increases the possibility of causing or contributing to an accident, the tint installer “may assume an increased personal liability.”

” . . . This is just something that those sue-conscious people haven’t realized yet,” Daily says.

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For now, the CHP hasn’t ordered a big crackdown. “There’s not going to be a mass attack on tinted windows,” Daily says. “We hope to deter a lot of this problem simply by getting vendors to cooperate.”

Cooperate? Not Ron Basler, owner of Total Eclipse Tinting in Anaheim. “The CHP can stick it,” he says. “We’re not going to stop doing it, and nobody’s going to bother us. What we try to do is not put it on real dark in the front, so it’s not as noticeable.”

Basler says he always tells customers that tinting is illegal on front windows, “but I’ve never had (a customer) in 12 years say no, don’t do it.”

Fines for illegal tinting vary depending on the judge, Daily says, but in many cases drivers simply are issued a “fix-it ticket,” which requires them to correct the problem or be fined.

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Basler says that if a customer does get caught with illegal tinting, he’ll “take it off and put it back on, free.” Daily says he has heard of several other tint vendors who offer the same service.

Daily says the CHP became concerned because so many of the drivers they encountered seemed to be misinformed. “We had one come in and say they’d had their tint lightened (on the windshield and front windows). They didn’t understand that any tint is illegal in those places,” he says. “And others have said the dealers told them there had been a new court decision that made it legal. That’s not true. I tell them to go back and tell the dealer to give them their money back.”

After talking with Daily, I called several Orange County window-tinting businesses at random and asked--anonymously--about the legality. All of them told me tinting was illegal on front windows and windshields, and all but one offered to do it for me anyway.

“It isn’t legal, but. . . . " said a Fullerton dealer.

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“Now, did you want the front windows done or not?” an Anaheim dealer asked as we were discussing the price.

“I thought you said it was illegal,” I replied.

“It is. But we do it anyway,” the salesman said.

Tint vendors “seem to be operating on the premise that if everybody else does it, it’s all right,” Daily says. “I had one fellow call me as a result of the letters who said, ‘The reason I’m doing it is that all my competitors are doing it.’

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“They don’t understand, I don’t think, that the drivers aren’t the only ones breaking the law.”

Before 1961, tinting was perfectly legal in California. The thin films now in use had not been developed, so tints were sprayed on windshields and car windows. By 1961, the practice was so popular that “the Legislature became concerned about the darkness and visibility deterioration of those products,” according to a CHP report issued in the 1970s.

At first, a law was enacted to prohibit “any material (transparent or not) that reduced the driver’s clear view through the windshield.”

Then in 1967, the Vehicle Code was amended to prohibit “any material (transparent or not) from being installed or affixed to the windshield or windows to the sides of the driver, regardless of how much or how little it reduced the driver’s clear view.”

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A year later, the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a San Diego man whose car had tinted windows, throwing out the two previous laws on an obscure technicality that we won’t go into here. That left tinting unregulated until a new law was passed in 1973.

That same law, which remains in effect today despite a 1981 court challenge, makes illegal both the use and the installation of tinting in prohibited places. “Factory installed” tinting--meaning tinted glass installed as original equipment--is exempted, and some installers tried unsuccessfully to take advantage of that provision by claiming that their shops were factories.

“You know that they can’t pass laws like this unless there’s a good reason,” Daily says. The most important, he says, is that tinting “reduces the driver’s ability to see. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for a driver wearing shades to see even during the brightest daylight. And it eliminates eye contact between drivers, and between drivers and pedestrians. That increases the chance of accidents.”

Research dating back to the 1950s shows that tinting does impair a driver’s vision, according to the CHP report. But Basler insists he can see better with tinted windows, especially at night. And so does Scott Harter of Huntington Beach, who has the rear windows of his Toyota van tinted. “You know how there are two settings on your rear-view mirror, so that if someone comes up behind you with bright lights you can flip it? With tinted windows, you don’t have to do that,” Harter says.

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Harter had his windows tinted primarily because “my car sits out in the parking lot in the sun all day long. By the time I get to it, it’s really hot on the inside. The tinting has made an enormous difference.” Harter says he would like to have tint applied to the front windows, but he doesn’t want to violate the law.

C. Cook, owner of Mr. C’s Personal Limousine Service in Newport Beach, tints all the side windows on his four limousines as well as his own car. “I have it real light on the front,” he says. “Nobody’s stopped me yet. I haven’t had any problems, so I see no reason to take it off.”

Basler claims that tinting “reduces 95% of all fading on auto interiors and stops almost 70% of glare. And if you’re sensitive to sunlight, you can get an exemption to have it put on legally.”

Not quite, says the CHP. “A lot of people think it protects the interior of a car,” Daily says. “It doesn’t.” And according to the CHP’s letter, “Medical authorities have advised the CHP that clear window glass eliminates virtually all the sun’s harmful rays.”

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There is indeed an exemption for those who are sensitive to sunlight, Daily says, “but it only allows removable shields, such as those pull-down screens. And you must have a letter from your doctor saying you need this extra protection.”


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