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Why are fog lights yellow? Does it help that they are? Does it matter if you are driving in city or countryside?

There is no good reason why fog lights are yellow. Here is an excellent explanation provided by Professor Craig Bohren of Penn State University:

"First I'll give you the wrong explanation, which you can find here and there. It goes something like this. As everyone knows, scattering (by anything!) is always greater at the shortwavelength end of the visible spectrum than at the longwavelength end. Lord Rayleigh showed this, didn't he? Thus to obtain the greatest penentration of light through fog, you should use the longest wavelength possible. Red is obviously unsuitable because it is used for stop lights. So you compromise and use yellow instead.

This explanation is flawed for more than one reason. Fog droplets are, on average, smaller than cloud droplets, but they still are huge compared with the wavelengths of visible light. Thus scattering of such light by fog is essentially wavelength independent. Unfortunately, many people learn (without caveats) Rayleigh's scattering law and then assume that it applies to everything. They did not learn that this law is limited to scatterers small compared with the wavelength and at wavelengths far from strong absorption.

The second flaw is that in order to get yellow light in the first place you need a filter. Note that yellow fog lights were in use when the only available headlights were incandescent lamps. If you place a filter over a white headlight, you get less transmitted light, and there goes your increased penetration down the drain.

There are two possible explanations for yellow fog lights. One is that the first designers of such lights were mislead because they did not understand the limitations of Rayleigh's scattering law and did not know the size distribution of fog droplets. The other explanation is that someone deemed it desirable to make fog lights yellow as a way of signalling to other drivers that visibility is poor and thus caution is in order.

Designers of headlights have known for a long time that there is no magic color that gives great penetration. I have an article from the Journal of Scientific Instruments published in October 1938 (Vol. XV, pp. 317-322). The article is by J. H. Nelson and is entitled "Optics of headlights". The penultimate section in this paper is on "fog lamps". Nelson notes that "there is almost complete agreement among designers of fog lamps, and this agreement is in most cases extended to the colour of the light to be used. Although there are still many lamps on the road using yellow light, it seems to be becoming recognized that there is no filter, which, when placed in front of a lamp, will improve the penetration power of that lamp."

This was written 61 years ago. Its author uses a few words ("seem", "becoming recognized") indicating that perhaps at one time lamp designers thought that yellow lights had greater penetrating power. And it may be that because of this the first fog lamps were yellow. Once the practice of making such lamps yellow began it just continued because of custom."

Also, take a look at the following web site:

Dr. Lawrence D. Woolf

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