Noelle LaBlanc doesn't make a habit of breaking the law. But when it came to having the windows tinted on her gray Nissan Sentra, she made an exception.
Though she knew that legally she could tint only the rear side and back windows of her car with the micro-thin plastic coating, she asked John Jackson, owner of San Diego Glass Coating, to cover the front windows on the driver and passenger sides as well. He agreed.
LaBlanc figured that her husband, an Oceanside police officer, could help her out if she got ticketed for the offense. Which she did, after just one week.
"He told me not to do it, but I did it anyway," she sighed.
The illegal tinting left her with a fix-it ticket and a $110 fine, which she convinced a judge to repeal, but it eventually cost John Jackson a lot more. The San Diego city attorney's office fined him $11,024. Last spring, he became the first window tinter in the county to be investigated and fined for illegally tinting vehicle windows.
To date in San Diego County, only one other glass business, Scott's Custom Glass Tinting in El Cajon, has been fined, but Assistant City Atty. Michael Revo said the investigations will continue as long as drivers are willing to identify the companies that illegally tinted their windows--even if the driver himself requested it.
"I knew what the law was," said Terry Shippen, who had to remove the tinting from the windows of his Porsche 928 after being cited. "But it's kind of like the law against jaywalking; when it's convenient to cross the street in the middle of the block, we frequently do it."
Companies that manufacture tinting materials are so concerned about the crackdown on consumers and the companies that buy their products that they have mounted a campaign in Washington to change federal guidelines restricting window tinting.
And in California, a state with more cars and more stringent glass-coating standards than most, one manufacturer has hired two Sacramento-based lobbyists to seek changes in the law.
"One reason we became especially involved in California is because of all the publicity about increased enforcement," said Darrell Smith, Automotive Products Manager for Martin Processing of South Carolina, one of four companies nationwide that are leading the drive to change federal tinting regulations.
During the past two years in California, the number of tickets written for illegal tinting has risen dramatically, though California Highway Patrol officials in Sacramento deny that there has been any directive to crack down on motorists.
In 1984, CHP officers ticketed 28,500 motorists for the offense. By 1987, that figure had risen to 59,278, to 82,272 by 1988. Why?
"I think window tinting has become more fashionable, stylish, and certainly there's been more marketing on the part of vendors," said CHP spokesman Steve Kohler, adding that the increase in tinted windows accounts for the increase in tickets.
Reasons for the CHP's objections to tinting include poor driver visibility after dark and a lack of eye contact between drivers, resulting in more accidents.
But vendors like Jackson believe that the ticket increase stems from CHP officers who are ticketing drivers, in part, because of their own dislike of tinted windows.
"Officer safety is what it's all about, regardless of what they say about anything," said Jackson, one of many window tinters in the county who received a letter from the local CHP commander last November expressing concern about the increase in illegally tinted vehicles.
"They don't care," countered CHP Officer Mike Pugh, referring to the vendors. "They're in it for the money, and if they can tint all four windows, they'll do it, regardless of the law."
In Arizona, where tinting of all four windows is legal, Sgt. Allan Schmidt of the Arizona Highway Patrol said the issue of officer safety has not been debated.
"I haven't heard of any officers screaming about this," he said.
He has heard complaints from Arizona motorists who visit California and come home with a ticket for tinting. Schmidt said the federal law, which California shuns, was passed to give the nation a uniform vehicle code and avoid the interstate problems window tinting has raised.
The controversy surrounding window tinting, not only in San Diego but in other parts of California and the United States, has prompted a group of manufacturers to push for a change in federal guidelines governing use of their material on motor vehicles.
Industry analysts believe that less restrictive standards will eventually lead to more favorable state laws, especially in California. The state is one of only 15 in the nation with a more stringent law than federal guidelines allow.
The California vehicle code, passed in 1961, allows drivers to tint the rear and side rear windows of their vehicles with any density of tint, from pitch-black "limo tint"--which allows only 5% of available light into a car--to more common tints that permit 35% to 75% of outdoor light.
Window tinting costs from $100 to $150 or more, depending on the size of the vehicle. Although state law forbids after-market tinting on front windows, it allows factory tinting on the windshield as long as the glass is 75% light-transmissible--a very light tint.
Federal guidelines set by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration let a driver tint all windows except the windshield as long as the material allows 70% light.
Most of the 35 states that allow window tinting abide by that rule--a less stringent one than California's but still not what manufacturers would like.
"Many of the states that don't know where to look for guidance follow the National Highway Administration standards," said Smith, of Martin Processing.
In 1985, Martin Processing and three other companies jointly commissioned the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute to study the safety benefits of window tinting.
The study took 1 1/2 years to complete and was used to write a petition, which was presented to the National Highway Safety Administration in August. It asks that guidelines be changed so that all vehicle windows can be tinted, except the windshield, with film that transmits at least 35% of available light.
When the CHP complains that tinting is unsafe not only for officers but for drivers, manufacturers wave their report, which says that drivers can see better through windows with a 50% tint than they could if the window weren't there.
They also push other safety and comfort features of window tint: keeping glass from shattering in an accident, cooling the vehicle by as much as 50%, reducing glare and improving visibility, and even forming a shield that can keep a passenger from flying through a window during a collision.
The CHP does not offer research to back up its concerns--mainly about driver's inability to see, other drivers' inability to see inside the car, and the belief that a driver with tinted windows cannot see if he is wearing sunglasses.
If the window tinting companies successfully change the federal law, Martin Processing may begin a campaign to pass new legislation in California, Smith said. He complained that, not only does California's law discourage many people from tinting because they don't like the look of a partly tinted car, but many consumers have been scared off by stories of ticket crackdowns.
Many drivers think it is illegal to have any tint on their cars at all, he said.
Until the law changes, neither the CHP nor the city attorney's office has any plans to let up on drivers such as LaBlanc and Shippen, or businessmen such as Jackson.
LaBlanc would like to see the law change, even though her husband is a police officer. She thinks the tinting is easy to see through and would not endanger his life.
Shippen, who was forced to remove the tint from two cars and a van, is still angry.
"I feel like it's selective enforcement. There are so many cars with tint on their windows that it gives the officer a lot of discretion to pull over whomever they want."