Local activist sues city of Ashland over flashing LEDs

Pedestrians who've pushed a button to turn on flashing lights to warn motorists that they are crossing cross Siskiyou Boulevard in front of Southern Oregon University on Friday evening, Nov. 4. Ashland.news photo by Bert Etling
November 5, 2022

Crosswalk safety lights can trigger reaction in those with epilepsy, autism, suit says

By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news

A local accessibility activist has sued the city of Ashland over LED flashers at crosswalks, arguing the signs cause pain and discomfort for individuals like himself with light hypersensitivity.

Mark Baker of Ashland filed suit in Jackson County Circuit Court Oct. 21, accusing the city of discimination by failing to mitigate the effects of the lights and declining to give him an audience to express his grievances. 

Baker is not seeking damages, but instead wants changes to city policy that would require Ashland to establish procedures for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, and a declaration from the court that Ashland has been discriminating against individuals with epilepsy, autism and other conditions that may cause light hyperssensitivity.

Ashland was served with notice of the suit Oct. 28 and has 30 days to respond in court. When questioned by Ashland.News, city representatives declined to comment on Baker’s allegations, while a records request for copies of correspondence between Baker and Ashland was not immediately fulfilled.

Advocating against harmful effects

Baker has been advocating against the widespread use of LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, since 2017, and earlier this year founded the nonprofit Soft Lights Foundation to further spread word and gather support. The foundation’s website, softlights.org, said LEDs produce non-uniform, flickering light that is heavy on the blue spectrum and can harm the nervous system, potentially causing “seizures, migraines, panic attacks, anxiety, and agitation.”

LEDs have been used as artificial light sources since the 1960s and are found today in devices from phones to TVs to headlights. Medical studies published by institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, Harvard, and the Mayo Clinic have linked blue light exposure to negative impacts on natural biological rhythms such as sleep cycles, but have not linked LEDs to more extreme symptoms such as those described by Baker.

Baker has taken particular issue with Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFB) on crosswalks signs throughout Ashland, which use LEDs to alert motorists to the presence of pedestrians. Baker said he has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which can cause light hypersensitivity, and because of this he is prevented from engaging in or enjoying normal activities in certain parts of Ashland where RRFBs are displayed.

Flashing lights intended to ensure pedestrian safety at crosswalks along Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland, Oregon, have become the subject of a lawsuit. Ashland.news video by Bert Etling
Federal rules allow RRFBs

Baker told Ashland.News that, when he first approached the city about this issue, he was told RRFBs are legally allowed through federal regulations and, if he wanted them removed, Baker would have to change these laws. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) approved the widespread use of RRFBs in 2008, calling the devices an effective, cost-efficient method for increasing pedestrian safety at crosswalks, claiming they reduce pedestrian crashes by 47 percent and increase motorist yield rates by up to 98 percent.

When asked if the potential benefits of RRFBs outweighed the need to accommodate light-hypersensitive residents, Baker said flashing LEDs were not the only method of controlling traffic at crosswalks. He said roads can be designed with safety features like curbs, low speed limits and roundabouts that prevent the need for flashing alerts in the first place.

“Common sense should tell anyone that shining a high intensity strobing light into the eyes of a driver is dangerous,” said Baker. “It should not be so difficult to convince government officials that pulsing this high energy visible radiation into people’s eyes will decrease their visible freedom, impair their vision, and reduce their cognitive functioning.”

FHA reached out to Baker after he filed a federal civil rights complaint about RRFBs against Ashland, as well as against Little Canada, Minn., and Penn Yan, N.Y. In a letter dated Oct. 19, the agency said they were dismissing the complaint without further investigation, noting changes to ADA enforcement in 2010 meant agencies were not obligated to investigate alleged non-compliance simply because a complaint had been filed.

“An enforcement agency must consider a number of factors in deciding whether to conduct a full investigation, such as whether a violation may have occurred, whether the agency’s limited resources are best spent on one complaint or another, and whether particular enforcement action best fits the agency’s overall policies,” read the letter.

Alleged non-compliance

Baker disagrees with this assessment and said public agencies like Ashland are required to give credence to an ADA complaint and to take appropriate corrective action. He said the refusal of city department heads and elected officials to take up his concerns reflects their need to develop ADA compliance policies and increase their understanding about accessibility accommodations.

“The ADA requires the city to provide an audience with a person who files a request for accommodation and an investigation and to find a mutually-agreeable accommodation,” Baker told Ashland.News. “The city of Ashland refuses to comply with the law and will not even take the first step of discussing my ADA request.”

Baker’s lawsuit wants the court to direct Ashland to hire and train an ADA coordinator, whose job it would be to carry out ADA policies including the hearing of grievances, the implementation of accommodations, and a self-evaluation plan for ongoing ADA compliance. According to Ashland’s website, it currently accepts ADA compliance complaints through the Administration Department, and said it will provide reasonable ADA accommodations to participate in city programs or access city facilities if given appropriate prior notice.

But Baker foresees potential struggles with his lawsuit, saying litigation surrounding LEDs is relatively new and courts are unfamiliar with the issues involved, and previous legal action initiated by Soft Lights Foundation has been unsuccessful.

“We have made tentative steps with small claims actions, and initiated lawsuits in several states, but all of those actions have been derailed for various reasons,” said Baker. “We have also initiated several human rights investigations, including in Alaska, New York, Minnesota, and Oregon. Again, the human rights commissions are paralyzed because they don’t know what to do about the civil rights violations caused by this new technology, but all of these cases are currently in progress.”

Lack of studies a concern

Despite pressing for changes in LED regulations, Soft Lights Foundation concedes there have not been any definitive studies proving a direct link between LED light and negative neurological affects. A two-year study by FHA prior to approving RRFB use concluded the devices had “no identifiable negative effects,” however this study was focused on traffic behavior and did not investigate potential medical or neurological impacts.

Baker said this lack of research is its own concern and means the federal government has allowed widespread use of LEDs without understanding their full impacts. He said people who have reached out to Soft Lights Foundation have described their own experiences, such as epliptec seizures and disorientation, and this is enough for them to know devices like RRFBs are dangerous.

“Government agencies do not yet understand that flat surface visible radiation must be

measured and regulated differently from curved surface emitters such as tungsten filament,” said Baker. “Because of this lack of understanding of the physics of flat surface sources, LEDs have no restrictions on peak luminance/radiance, spatial non-uniformity, spectral power distribution, or square wave flicker and flashing. RRFBs are unvetted, unregulated, toxic, dangerous, and discriminatory.”

Email Ashland.news reporter Stephen Floyd at sfloydmedia@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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