Why do we tint our windows in the rainy NW?

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By Paula Wissel

You pull up to a stop light, look over, and the windows on the SUV next to you are so dark you can’t see in. Why are we hiding behind tinted car windows here in the Pacific Northwest?

It can’t be the sun in our eyes.


Not just in the sunshine states anymore

If it seems like you’re seeing more tinted windows here, you are.

Darrell Smith heads the trade association for the window tinting industry. (Yes, there’s a window tinting industry complete with its own lobbying group, the International Window Film Association.

Smith says the industry has really “exploded” in the last decade. He says while you still see more tinted auto windows in the sun belt states, the market in Washington state and the rest of the Northwest is growing.

“In areas where traditionally they’re not big sunshine areas, you still are seeing increases in the use of these products,” Smith said.


Stop looking at me

Midnight Window Tinting sits behind a car stereo shop on Aurora Avenue in Seattle. Installers Octavio Cardenas and Felix Hernandez tint from 6 to 10 cars a day. The cost per car is several hundred dollars.

The installers spray soapy water on the windows before laying on sheets of adhesive backed film. Small squeegees are used to get rid of the water and work out any bubbles. It's like pasting up wallpaper.

Cardenas says everybody has his or her reason for wanting to tint their windows. He says for some drivers, it’s about customizing their ride. Often, though, it comes down to privacy.

“You get a lot of people, they just don’t like the fishbowl look,” he said.

The fishbowl look.  

Other drivers being able to stare in at you.

Smith, with the window tint trade group, says car manufacturers are trying to make cars seem roomier by designing them with more glass areas. And that makes us feel more exposed.


I really, really need my privacy

Sometimes, privacy is the real reason even when we tell ourselves it’s something else.

In the parking lot of a car stereo shop, I notice a Nissan Maxima with tinted windows. The owner, Evans Monene, is buying some speakers. When I ask him why he got his car windows tinted, he told me it was to help protect himself from the hot weather in the summer. I pointed out that it doesn’t really get that hot in Seattle. He laughed.

 “Yeah, you’re right. My main reasons are security and privacy,” he said.     


What are we hiding

This talk about the need for privacy prompts a response from KPLU’s Dick Stein, who hosts Midday jazz and Food for Thought on KPLU.

Stein originally suggested this topic for the “I Wonder Why…?” series.

To Stein, tinting windows in a gloomy, gray climate makes no sense. He sees it as just part of a general trend towards self-imposed isolation and anonymity of the sort you see in comments on blog posts.

“Everything seems to be more isolated and now you’re hiding behind dark glass so nobody can see you. It really harks back to a bygone era. In the 18th century in Venice, people went out on the streets wearing masks, literal masks, and I think we’re going back to that,” he said.


Am I legal, officer?

Washington state trooper, Julie Startup. Photo by Paula WisselSo, reasons for tinting windows aside, are all of these people breaking the law or is it legal to tint car windows here?

Washington state trooper, Julie Startup, gets that question a lot.

She says some tints are legal and some are illegal. She carries a tint meter with her to measure the amount of light coming through a window. In Washington, 24 percent or more light transmission is required. And, you can’t put any tint on the main part of the windshield.

“We’re required that we be able to see into the driver’s compartment,” she said.

Trooper Startup says she’s been seeing a lot of illegal tints lately. There aren’t specific numbers on it, however, because the state patrol doesn’t separate window tint tickets from those issued for other equipment violations.

Officers use these tint meters to measure the amount of light coming through a window. Photo by Paula WisselStartup says law enforcement is concerned. Approaching a car with tinted windows can be unnerving. The killing in February of state trooper Tony Radelescu during a traffic stop near Port Orchard (by the way, that driver had tinted windows) is a reminder of the dangers.

Startup says the first thing she does when she stops a driver is tell him or her to roll down all of the windows.          

“For me, not seeing into a car, it’s scary,” she said.


The future looks dark

Tinted windows seem to be here to stay, though. Not only are more drivers paying to have their windows tinted, many cars now come with darkened windows right off the lot. It’s rare to see an SUV, minivan or pickup truck that doesn’t have tinted windows. That’s because, by federal law, they’re considered work vehicles and exempt from any regulations restricting window tint on back and rear side windows.

A comparison card showing the different levels of visible light transmission. Photo by Paula WisselLook at the cars at your local dealership. Tinted windows are everywhere.

David Kiley lives in Michigan and writes about the auto industry for the Huffington Post. Kiley explains that the vast majority of people buying new cars purchase them right off the lot. He says car dealers in Seattle and elsewhere order up cars with add-ons, such as window tinting, they believe will sell.

Still, Kiley was surprised tinted windows would be so popular here.

“They make a lot of sense for people who live in sun states because the sun can wreak havoc on interiors,” he said.

But he was recently in Portland and “definitely there was no sun there.”