Crime, Safety and the Social Justice Aspects of Light Pollution

This blog post draws heavily on “The State of the Science” report by John Barentine, available here.


The belief that outdoor lighting improves traffic safety and discourages or prevents crime is common. It may explain in part the rapid growth in the use of outdoor light at night in recent years and decades. There are cases where the careful application of outdoor lighting may improve night-time safety, but there is no general benefit supported by scientific evidence.

Crime, Safety and Traffic

There is conflicting research on this topic and no consensus that adding or increasing lighting reduces crime, or traffic accidents, (except on busy urban junctions, where sensible lighting is shown to reduce accidents.)

Researchers have not been able to accurately predict or model the way that lighting might affect actual crime figures.  There are issues with the scientific reliability and honesty of that show a reduction in crime rates where lighting is installed, e.g. one study concluded that putting additional lighting did reduce crime, but the researchers failed to report that in those areas, additional policing was also implemented, which was not in the areas with no or low lighting.

Confounding factors and variables have subtle effects on research that add up to important, erroneous conclusions because responsibility can easily be assigned to lighting even though it contributed very little.  As a result, many of the claims about outdoor lighting and its impact on crime and traffic safety – for better or worse – may be fundamentally wrong (266, 267).

The Hazards of Glare

Glare from bright artificial light sources can decrease night-time safety.  Intense light directly entering the eye from unshielded sources scatters inside the observer’s eye, reducing the contrast between foreground and background and reducing peripheral and night vision.  Additionally, the pupil of the observer’s eye contracts, reducing total visibility by dimming the appearance of the entire scene. These effects make it difficult to see objects, such as cars or potential attackers, as distinct from what surrounds them.

Are We Afraid of the Dark?

Although the data on crime statistics is variable, how we feel about crime in relation to the darkness is not.  People in Western, urban societies tend to feel safer when there is more light, but how much more is needed for this effect?  The amount of light used in outdoor spaces at night may not reflect public expectations for feelings of safety and comfort (270), and artificial light itself may influence the human perception of fear (271). In some cases, over-lighting can itself become the source of safety hazards (272). However, properly designed lighting can reduce light pollution and save energy without compromising on public feelings of safety in outdoor spaces at night (273).

Conclusions for Crime and Safety.

The assumption that adding bright lights reduces crime is not supported by evidence.  However, adding appropriate, sensible, thoughtful lighting does reduce our fear of crime at night, and also reduces the obvious safety issue of glare.

Lighting and Social Justice

We know very little about how light pollution affects people in social contexts. Light at night may be used in ways that affect neighbourhoods according to the race of the people who live in them. That may make light at night use a matter of social and environmental justice.

Light Pollution, Racism and Poverty

The only comprehensive study to date on this topic looked at the social aspects of lighting in the U.S. only (292). Researchers found that Americans of Asian, Hispanic and Black descent tend to live in brighter neighbourhoods (Figure 7). In these areas, skyglow is about twice as Figure 7. Average exposure to light pollution in the continental United States by racial/ethnic group. The bars show population-weighted average zenith night sky brightness levels in units of millicandelas per square meter. Figure 4 in Nadybal, Collins and Grineski, 2020 (292). high as in predominantly white neighbourhoods. They further note that lower socioeconomic status is also associated with higher night-time light exposures. These conditions can add to other social and environmental stressors such as poverty and exposure to air and water pollution, affecting quality of life.

Closely related to this is the idea that light pollution is harmful to people whose religious or cultural practices rely on access to the night sky. The erasure of the stars from view due to skyglow separates people from this resource. Some argue that it threatens Indigenous traditions and knowledge systems based on accessibility of the natural night sky (300).


  • Marchant, P. Why lighting claims might well be wrong. International Journal of Sustainable Lighting, 19(1):69–74, jun 2017. doi: 10.26607/ijsl.v19i1.71.
  • Marchant, P. Do brighter, whiter street lights improve road safety? Significance, 16(5):8–9, oct 2019. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2019.01313.x.
  • Svechkina, A., Trop, T. and Portnov, B.A. How much lighting is required to feel safe when walking through the streets at night? Sustainability, 12(8):3133, apr 2020. doi: 10.3390/ su12083133.
  • McGlashan, E.M., Poudel, G.R., Jamadar, S.D., Phillips, A.J.K. and Cain, S.W. Afraid of the dark: Light acutely suppresses activity in the human amygdala. PLOS ONE, 16(6): e0252350, jun 2021. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0252350
  • Marchant, P., Hale, J.D. and Sadler, J.P. Does changing to brighter road lighting improve road safety? multilevel longitudinal analysis of road traffic collision frequency during the relighting of a UK city. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 74(5):467–472, mar 2020. doi: 10.1136/jech-2019-212208.
  • Saad, R., Portnov, B.A. and Trop, T. Saving energy while maintaining the feeling of safety associated with urban street lighting. Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy, 23 (1):251–269, nov 2020. doi: 10.1007/s10098-020-01974-0.
  • Nadybal, S.M., Collins, T.W. and Grineski, S.E. Light pollution inequities in the continental united states: A distributive environmental justice analysis. Environmental Research, 189: 109959, oct 2020. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2020.109959.
  • Hamacher, D.W., de Napoli, K. and Mott, B. Whitening the sky: light pollution as a form of cultural genocide, 2020.

Case Study: Night/Dark Sky Friendly Lighting Retrofit.

These are before and after photos of a lighting retrofit at the National Outdoor Centre, Plas Y Brenin in Capel Curig.  (Scroll down the page to see the final, amazing results!)

The project was managed by Dani Robertson, the Dark Sky Officer for the Prosiect Nos Partnership between Snowdonia National Park, the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley, Anglesey and Pen Llŷn Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

It sits in the heart of one of her Core zones and is a complex site. It is Grade 1 listed, has three car parks, is a bit of a maze and needs to facilitate visitors at all times of the day and night who come to join residential courses, use the climbing wall or hire equipment.

Security was a concern due to a lot of high value equipment being around and also the safety of visitors as many of them come from cities and arrive in hours of darkness, many of whom have never experienced any darkness before. This previously led to lots of harsh, strong lights being installed and people still complained they couldn’t see or navigate safely!

Since the retrofit we Dani has had tons of positive feedback from staff, some of whom live on site, visitors and residents from the nearby area. These lighting changes have also reduced their carbon footprint by at least two tons a year.

Before the work, birds were recorded singing at night around the centre and Dani recorded only 1 bat foraging at the other side of the lake. Since the work, there has been recorded nearly 200 bats (many of whom have moved in!), owls and a potential Pine Marten sighting!

The final results, showing an impressive in uplighting and skyglow, a reduction in wasted light & carbon emissions, which would mean a cash saving on electricity bills, safer lighting for humans and wildlife, and better views of the milky way!

Dani is also part of the leadership team of the DarkSky UK Chapter and was one of the founding directors.

light from streetlights pours into a house on the staircase through a window

Sleep and Light Pollution

For thousands of years, humans have lived a 24-hour day marked by the rising and setting of the sun. We have evolved to respond to the blue parts of sunlight, regulating our waking and sleeping cycle. Most artificial light reduces our ability to see the starry night sky, but it also impacts our sleep-wake cycles, or circadian rhythms. These circadian rhythms are universal across bird, reptile, and mammal species

Unfortunately, in our modern day-to-day life, light pollution extends our “daytime” experience well past sunset, thanks to artificial lighting containing some fraction of blue light.

Sleep is Essential

Everyone is a big fan of a good night’s sleep, but as you can see, sleep is an essential part of your wellbeing and health.


Melatonin is a key chemical related to your circadian rhythm and is strongly linked to getting you ready for sleep.

In animals, melatonin plays an important role in the regulation of sleep–wake cycles.[18] Human infants’ melatonin levels become regular in about the third month after birth, with the highest levels measured between midnight and 8:00 am.[19] Human melatonin production decreases as a person ages.[20] Also, as children become teenagers, the nightly schedule of melatonin release is delayed, leading to later sleeping and waking times.[21]


Blue light prevents your body from making melatonin which can cause insomnia or prevent you falling asleep at the right time.

Light Pollution and Sleep – The Science Bit.

Think of a rainbow; can you remember all the different colours there are? We are interested in how the blue part of a light spectrum (or rainbow) affects our sleep. It turns out that the eye contains a part that is specifically for synchronising your circadian rhythm. These “ipRGC” cells react to blue light, and when they activate they send a signal to the brain that stops it producing melatonin. So if you want a good nights sleep, and if we want the animals in our habitats to sleep well, we MUST tackle the “blue light” part of our lighting at night.

For you, the best thing you can do is use a blue light filter, or “comfort filter” on your mobile phone. You can check the colour temperatures of your light bulbs and make sure they are less than 3,000K, the lower the better.  (Smart lights are great, e.g. Hue, because you can set them to any colour temperature you like, for example if you have Hue lights and a google hub you can say “Ok Google, set my lights to two thousand kelvin” – try it and see!) Research on melatonin suppression due to blue wavelengths of light is available if you click here.

Red Light and Sleep

There is some evidence suggesting that red, or redder lights at twilight and night can help you fall asleep, (although other evidence suggests its the absence of blue light that acts as a passive influence.)  In either case, your brain releases more melatonin as darkness falls and tends to release less when you’re exposed to blue light.  The bottom line is that we need to sleep in complete darkness, and to avoid as much exposure to light of all colours in the hour or so before we want to nod off.

The Milky Way and several dark sky objects such as Orion and the Pleiades over Battlesteads Observatory in Northumberland


The Milky Way and several dark sky objects such as Orion and the Pleiades over Battlesteads Observatory, illuminated with red light, in Northumberland. Image: Dr Martin Kitching

In a 2012 study on 20 female athletes, participants were randomly given 30 minutes of red light therapy every night for two weeks. When compared to the placebo group with no light therapy, the athletes had improved quality of sleep, melatonin levels, and performance. In 2019 a 3-week study of 19 people in an office environment showed that using a combination of red with the office white light in the afternoon improved afternoon alertness and circadian rhythms. There is growing evidence that red light plays a role in triggering melatonin production at night (maybe because we evolved over the centuries watching beautiful orange/red sunsets?)

Red Light and Sleep Inertia

The Angel of the North in Gateshead is viewed looking West on a cloudy day at sunset. A couple are sharing an intimate moment as they watch the sun set.


An Intimate Moment with The Angel of the North at Sunset by Roy Alexander

Sleep inertia is a sleepy feeling that you feel after you wake up. It can affect your short-term memory and alertness. A small 2019 study on sleep inertia showed that saturated red light delivered through closed eyelids, at levels that don’t suppress melatonin, may help ease sleep inertia when we wake up.