Home Experience Services Contact Us Seminars Attorney's Guide to Perception Resources

Twilight Envelope (3.2 lux) As A visibility Criterion

Marc Green

"The Civil Twilight Method, Old Science Taken Out of Context" (Zwhalen & Schnell, 1999).

During civil twilight, approximately the first half hour after sunset, ground illuminance in good weather declines by a factor of about 100, from roughly 330 lux to 3.2 lux. The U.S. Naval Observatory describes civil twilight as a time for "terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished,"1 an assertion supported by performance data on tasks such as acuity, contrast sensitivity and reaction time. Assuming moderate reflectance, it is also in about the range where many visual functions begin to decline as photopic vision declines and scotopic vision begins.

This has led Owens, Francis and Leibowitz (1989) to propose the visibility concept of "twilight envelope," which suggests that an illumination of 3.2 lux, the level at the end of civil twilight, can act as a rough lower bound for adequate headlamp illumination. Drivers should have reasonably good foveal vision in the area illuminated above 3.2 lux but relatively poor foveal vision when illuminance falls below this twilight envelope. The "twilight distance" is the point down the road where illumination falls below 3.2 lux and the envelope ends. Owens, Francis and Leibowitz (1989) estimated different twilight distances at different heights above the roadway. For headlamps mounted 27 inches high, for example, they estimated distances of 260 feet at the roadway, twilight distances of 175 feet at headlamp level, and only 80 feet at a driver eye height of 42 inches.

The twilight value is an attempt to use illumination as a visibility criterion. All such attempts are unreliable for many reasons. The twilight envelope is very much like the
computer PRT program. It tries to take a very complex phenomenon and simplify it to a level where people with no experience or knowledge of the subject matter can claim to know the right answer. Like the use of the computer program, this is wishful thinking:
  • There can be no such thing a single illumination level that is adequate for all tasks. Different tasks require different amounts of light. Reading a newspaper requires a different amount of light from seeing a pedestrian or playing baseball. How could 3.2 lux apply to all situations?
  • Most importantly, visibility depends on contrast, not illuminance. People do not see light, they see surfaces which are defined by edge contrasts. As explained elsewhere, contrast is the luminance ratio between the pedestrian and the background luminance, as calculated by the Weber fraction. Illumination is only a measure of the light falling on a surface, such as a pedestrian. It also ignores reflectance and hence luminance, which is a critical variable. For example, one study (Wood, Tyrrell, & Carberry, 2005) evaluated detection distances for pedestrians with different clothing under the same conditions. Drivers could respond to pedestrians wearing white clothing at a distance of 52.3 meters and to pedestrians wearing black clothing at only 11.3 meters, a difference of 463%. The twilight envelope concept does not capture such huge effects.
  • The twilight criterion completely ignores the background. In many cases, object contrast may depend on a background that is far in the distance behind the object. For example, the torso of a pedestrian may be seen against a distant background of sky, trees, buildings, etc. The illumination at the pedestrian's location then tells an incomplete story since contrast will depend on illumination (and reflectance) of the distant background. Simply determining illumination (or even luminance) at the pedestrian location says little about contrast and visibility.
  • The twilight value also fails to take account of many other important visual factors such as size, shape, masking, viewing time, visual field location, driver adaptation, lighting uniformity, spectral wavelength distribution, etc. Then there are viewer variables such as age, eye disease, night myopia, the Mandelbaum effect, etc., etc. (see Boff, & Lincoln, 1988, Zwahlen, & Schnell, 1999 and Green et al., 2008 for partial lists of some of the variables). How could a simple illumination criterion predict visibility with such a complicated set of variables?
  • No purely photometric measure can specify a detection criterion. There is no such thing as a fixed line between visible and not visible and many cognitive factors, such as expectation affect probability of seeing. These issues have been discussed more fully in Green et al. (2008).
  • The inadequacy of an illumination criterion for visibility is evident in the development of roadway lighting specifications. They were originally stated in terms of illumination level. This proved so inadequate that specifications switched to more accurate luminance stands. This still proved inadequate for predicting visibility, so the next step was contrast specifications. To make specifications even more accurate, they are now often stated in terms of visibility levels calculated from contrast thresholds. All of this search for the best way to characterize good road lighting has been deemed necessary because simple illuminance values do not accurately predict visibility. National Transportation Library Document 97097 concludes:

    "Illuminance criteria have been proven to be inadequate predictors of the effectiveness of lighting systems."


    An illumination criterion is a popular method for specifying lighting requirements because it is simple and easy to measure - you can use an illuminometer (lux meter) which is a relatively cheap light meter rather than a luminance photometer, which is much more expensive.

    However, the ease and generality of an illuminance criterion is its vice as well as its virtue. It says nothing about specific situations. It is somewhat analogous to the AASHTO 2.5 seconds perception-reaction time. It is meant to a normal, worst case number and to apply to the population as a whole, including aged, impaired and distracted drivers. It is not meant to apply to any specific case, where reaction times can be much faster (or sometimes slower). This would be misuse of their PRT value. There is a fundamental difference in the task of AASHTO to find a number that safely covers most of the population as a whole in the general case and the forensic task of determining a reasonable number in a specific situation. An illumination value such as the twilight envelope can be useful, but it is meant only to be a guideline for the general case and should be disregarded when specific facts are known. Even when employed, however, it is at best a very crude and unreliable estimate.


    Boff, K. R., & Lincoln, J. E. (1988). Engineering Data Compendium. Human Perception and Performance. Armstrong Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, Wright Patterson AFB, OH.

    Owens D.A., Francis E.L., Leibowitz H.W. (1989). Visibility distance with headlights: A functional approach. SAE Technical Paper Series 890684.

    Wood, J. M., Tyrrell, R. A., & Carberry, T. P. (2005). Limitations in drivers' ability to recognize pedestrians at night. Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 47(3), 644-653.

    Zwahlen, H. T., & Schnell, T. (1999). Visual target detection models for civil twilight and night driving conditions. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 1692(1), 49-65.


    1Note that the definition does not say that after the end of civil twilight it is impossible for terrestrial objects to be clearly distinguished.

    Other Topics
    Personal Injury: Road Accidents
  • Is The Moth-Effect Real?
  • Human Error in Road Accidents
  • Reaction Time
  • Let's Get Real About Perception-Reaction Time
  • Why PRT Is Not Like Gravity
  • Vision in Older Drivers
  • Weather and Accidents: Rain & Fog
  • Accidents At Rail-Highway Crossings
  • Seeing Pedestrians At Night
  • Underride Accidents
  • Rear End Collision: Looming
  • Night Vision
  • Distracted Pedestrians
  • Failure To See
  • Perception-Reaction Time (PRT) Programs
  • Twilight (3.2 lux) As A visibility Criterion
  • Human Error And Fault Tolerance
  • Why Pedestrians Die
  • Bicyclists! Read This To Save Your Life
  • Personal Injury: Warnings & Product Defects
  • Warnings and Warning Labels
  • Warning Effectiveness Checklist
  • The Psychology of Warnings
  • Drugs, Adverse Effects & Warnings
  • Are Warnings Effective?
  • Human Error Vs. Design Error
  • Product Misuse And "Affordances"
  • Safety Hierarchy: Design Vs. Warning
  • Personal Injury: Other
  • Diving Accidents in Pools
  • Falls Down Steps
  • Medical Error
  • Computer & Medical Error
  • Criminal & Police
  • Errors in Eyewitness Identifications
  • Perceptual Error in Police Shootings
  • Eyewitness Memory Is Unreliable
  • Human Factors In Forensic Evidence
  • Intellectual Property
  • "Any Fool Can See The Trademarks Are Different"
  • Measuring Confusion For Intellectual Property
  • Color in Trademark and Tradedress Disputes
  • Visual Human Factors
  • 33 Reasons For Not Seeing
  • Seeing Color
  • Determining Visibility
  • "Inattentional Blindness" & Conspicuity
  • Computer animation has perceptual limitations
  • Photographs vs. Reality
  • The Six Laws Of Attention
  • What is "inattention?"

  • | Home | Experience | Services | Contact Us  | Seminars/CLE | Attorney's Guide  | Resources |

    Send this link to someone

    Copyright © 2013 Marc Green, Phd
    Home Page:
    Contact Us