Do Driving Sunglasses Really Work?

Stephen Fogel
September 2, 2019

If you drive during the daytime hours, you may wonder about whether you really need to wear driving sunglasses.

Driving sunglasses are designed to meet the unique needs of drivers. In the course of your life behind the wheel, you need to be prepared for all of the various weather and climate conditions that are out there, both expected and unexpected.

Because driving is primarily a visual experience, your eyes must be able to see clearly at all times. Driving sunglasses make it easier to see what’s around you as you drive, and to stay safe on the road. The right kind of frames, combined with the right kind of lenses, work together to make the best driving sunglasses.

Selecting frames

When picking out the frames for your driving sunglasses, it is important that they are designed to keep out stray light, which can be very distracting. The frames you select should be comfortable to wear, fit close to your face, and be large enough to give you good peripheral vision.

Frame materials

Frames for driving sunglasses can be made of many different durable materials, including:

  • Titanium
  • Beryllium
  • Stainless steel
  • Aluminum
  • Metal alloys
  • Plastic
  • Polycarbonate
  • Nylon
  • Carbon
  • Acetate (a plant-based plastic)

The most popular and functional frame styles for driving sunglasses include:

  • The Aviator: These use thin metal frames with large teardrop-shaped lenses to provide good coverage and visibility. The Aviator has been popularized by military pilots, whom they were originally developed for, as well as movie stars and other celebrities.

  • The Wraparound: These use curved frames and lenses that “wrap around” from the front to the sides, giving you excellent peripheral vision. These provide very good outward visibility and light protection, making them a great choice for driving sunglasses.

  • The Wayfarer: This has been around since 1952, and traditionally uses a black plastic frame with dark lenses that are wider at the top. The Wayfarer is a good choice for driving because of its large lenses and wide field of view outward.

  • Oversized: Popularized by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, this women’s style is significantly larger than your average sunglasses. The frames and lenses can be round, oval or square in shape. They provide excellent protection from the sun and great outward vision. This makes oversized a worthy design for driving sunglasses, as long as the temples (the side pieces) do not block your side vision.

Selecting lenses

The lenses in your driving sunglasses have two primary functions: - To allow you to see clearly - To protect your eyes

Lenses that let you see clearly

Once you've selected the appropriate frames for your driving sunglasses, the proper lenses are the next issue to consider. Optically speaking, the lenses of your driving sunglasses are there to let through everything you need to see, while blocking out those things that keep you from seeing what’s around you. There are many choices to make in this regard:

  • Lens color: While the color of the lenses in your driving sunglasses may seem to be simply a matter of style, it is really a matter of safety. Some lens colors can affect the way you perceive the colors of road markings, signs and traffic signals, as well as their intensity and contrast against the background. Lens colors to avoid are bright colors such as blue and red. A neutral tone like gray will not affect your color perception, and is a good choice for driving sunglasses. The right shades of amber or brown can improve contrast and let you see more detail.

  • Degree of tint: The relative darkness of your driving sunglasses should directly relate to the type of driving environment you typically find yourself in. The very darkest lenses are suited to desert, seaside, southerly, tropical and snowy winter environments. Areas that are normally cloudy or overcast do not require such a dark tint.

  • Polarization: Driving sunglasses are greatly improved when they have polarized lenses. The polarization process greatly reduces glare from the sun, as well as from your windshield, and other reflective surfaces. Polarized lenses let you see better, with less eye fatigue and greater overall safety. The only downside is that you may have trouble reading LED dashboard screens and heads-up displays with polarized lenses.

  • Photochromic: These are lenses that automatically darken in response to the increased UV light rays found outdoors. Some people prefer them because they make a separate pair of driving sunglasses unnecessary. But there are some limitations. Much of the ambient UV rays are filtered out by the vehicle’s windshield and windows, which makes the photochromic lenses less likely to fully darken when it is very bright outside your car, and may also not fully lighten when it gets dark. There are some photochromic lenses that are made specifically for drivers, but they will not turn completely clear when you're indoors.

  • Coatings: These are “treatments” for the lenses, which are applied after the lenses are made and polished. Some desirable coatings include anti-reflective, which lets more light through the lens for improved visibility, and anti-scratch, which provides a harder outside surface on the lens. This protects the lens from both damaging scratches and the side effect of increased glare from the scratched areas. UV-resistance and photochromic qualities can also be added with a coating. A mirrored coating, which reduces the amount of light coming through the lenses, can be useful if you will be wearing your driving sunglasses in extremely bright conditions.

Lenses that protect your eyes

The sun is essential to our well-being. But there is a component of sunlight that can have a bad effect on us, if we are exposed to too much of it. We are talking about ultraviolet or UV rays, which can cause eye-related problems such as:

  • Cataracts
  • Snow blindness
  • Some forms of eye cancer

The bottom line? Protecting your eyes from the sun’s UV rays will help you to maintain the quality of your vision, and very possibly live longer as a result.

Medical experts recommend wearing sunglasses that block at least 99% of harmful UV rays from getting through their lenses, whenever you are exposed to sunlight. These will usually be labeled as “UV 400,” and offer a high level of protection.

UV rays inside your car

The glass areas of your car block some, but not all, of the UV rays given off by the sun. While your laminated windshield is the equivalent of an SPF 50 sunscreen, most side and rear car windows provide much less protection.

Studies have shown that drivers tend to have more sun damage and skin cancer on their left sides, the side that is closest to the window. This is the result of drivers getting more than five times the amount of radiation on their left sides, as compared to their right sides. This is proof that the damaging rays of the sun can penetrate your side glass and cause you harm. A good pair of driving sunglasses (and some high-SPF sunscreen) will protect your eyes and your skin from these damaging UV rays.

Another way that driving sunglasses protect your eyes is through their impact resistance. Sunglasses sold in the US are regulated by the FDA, and they must pass two separate impact tests – one where a steel ball is dropped on the lens from a height of 50 inches, and another where a steel ball is shot at the lens at high speed.

Lenses can be made of a variety of materials

You will have many choices when it comes to the material that your lenses are made of. Here are your options:

  • Glass: The best optical clarity, but it comes with excess weight, high cost, and is easy to break
  • CR-39 and other organic plastics: This is the most common material used for general-purpose sunglasses. It is thinner and lighter in weight compared to glass, but it is not shatter-proof.
  • Polycarbonate: A popular choice for driving sunglasses due to its low cost, light weight, and strength, as well as UV resistance built right in. It loses points for poor scratch resistance and its tendency to distort your view.
  • Nylon: This has all the benefits of polycarbonate, along with greatly improved scratch resistance and even better strength.

What do driving sunglasses cost?

If you search for “driving sunglasses,” you will find thousands of choices, priced from a few dollars up to many hundreds of dollars. As with many purchases, the best way to go is with the highest-quality driving sunglasses that you can afford.

Many different studies have concluded that high-priced driving sunglasses do not guarantee you the highest level of eye protection. Price is no indication of quality when it comes to driving sunglasses.

There are good driving sunglasses in every price range. The right driving sunglasses for you should provide a good fit, keep out ambient light, have lenses in a neutral shade that provide good visibility without distortion, offer a UV400 level of protection, and be the right tint for your driving conditions. Add any other features that you consider important, and you’re good to go!

How to take care of driving sunglasses

As a valuable piece of optical equipment, your driving sunglasses will last much longer and perform better if you keep them clean and protect them. Clean, unscratched driving sunglasses will let you see more clearly, and will be comfortable to wear for longer periods of time. Here are some tips:

  • Rinse off your driving sunglasses with water before cleaning them.
  • Use only spray cleaners that are approved for your driving sunglasses.
  • Use mild soap and water, never dish detergent or all-purpose cleaners.
  • Let your driving sunglasses air dry if possible, to reduce scratching.
  • Use a dry, clean microfiber cloth to dry your driving sunglasses, never paper products or your T-shirt.
  • Store your driving sunglasses in a protective case whenever you are not wearing them.
Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.