Total Eclipse? Let’s Be Smart: Safety Tips For This Spectacular Event

a rendering of a rare solar eclipse

Warnings about the dangers of staring directly at the sun during an eclipse are practically as old as the sun itself. But a new study is warning that people may also be at greater risk of suffering bodily injury around the time of the eclipse - and the reason may surprise you.

This blog post outlines some safety precautions to take as many of us experience this once-in-a-lifetime event. People living in or travelling to the areas of our province where totality will occur should be especially certain to prepare for some potential disruption.

Motor Vehicle Accidents May Spike.

The last time parts of North America witnessed a solar eclipse, an estimated 20 million people in the United States travelled from their home to another city to be in the path of totality.

Researchers hypothesized that during a three-day period surrounding the 2017 event they would find an increased risk of fatal motor vehicle accidents compared to their control intervals (three-day periods occurring on the same days of the week one week before and one week after the eclipse). They were correct.

The rate of increase translated into one additional person being involved in a crash for every 25 minutes during this period. There was one additional accident-related fatality for every 95 minutes. The overall risk for road users was similar to what they would experience during certain holiday weekends (Thanksgiving, Victoria Day, or the July 1st).

The researchers couldn’t prove with certainty that changes in ambient light during the eclipse itself caused this spike. Rather, they suggest the most likely factor that would explain the extra accidents was the increase in traffic in communities within the path of totality. They noted that “other potential factors include travel on unfamiliar routes, speeding to arrive on time, driver distraction by a rare celestial event, drug- or alcohol-induced impairment from eclipse-related celebrations, and eclipse viewing from unsafe roadside locations.”

This study should give those of us residing in or travelling to the best places to view the eclipse some pause for thought. This year’s band of totality is much wider than the 2017 event.

Totality in some communities will last more than four minutes in 2024 compared to less than three minutes in 2017. Moreover, 12 million people resided within the area of totality for the 2017 eclipse. Almost 32 million live in areas within the 2024 path and 150 million more people live within a three-hour drive.

Be aware that many more people will be on the roads during the few days around the eclipse, and some visitors will be in unfamiliar locales. Stay off the roads entirely if possible, or plan on travelling away from peak periods of traffic. While you’re on the roads, be particularly vigilant of other road users.

Be Prepared for Food and Fuel Shortages.

A sudden influx of people in smaller cities and towns in the path of totality will not only lead to an abundance of cars on the roads. It may also lead to some critical shortages of food, and especially fuel.

Once again, government leaders are imploring people to learn lessons from the 2017 experience. Some towns swelled to two or three times their normal size, gas stations ran dry, restaurants ran out of food, and cell signals were jammed due to crowds. Rural infrastructure and supplies may be particularly stressed by a swelling population.

People within the band of totality described the event as “like the Super Bowl, but without a stadium,” and visitors were urged to “include a five gallon bucket of patience,” when packing for their trip as traffic congestion and delays were expected.

Whether you’re visiting the band of totality for a few hours or a few days, or living in it, remember that being over-prepared is much better than being under-prepared. Consider doing the following:

  • Buy or pack extra non-perishable food and water. (Travellers may also want to bring a couple rolls of toilet paper in case public washrooms or portables run out).
  • Travel with an emergency kit in your vehicle (flashlights, candles, first aid, blankets, batteries, non-digital radio, etc).
  • Fill up your gas tank prior to your trip and consider carrying a small, portable gas container in case there are fuel shortages in or near the band of totality.
  • Print paper copies of maps of unfamiliar areas in case cell reception is poor and map/GPS applications fail.
  • Consider downloading an app such as What3Words to help emergency responders pinpoint your location in the event of an emergency.

Protect Your Eyes When Looking at the Skies.

It should go without saying, but it never hurts repeating: never look directly at the sun without proper eye protection.

Staring at the sun during an eclipse may cause “eclipse blindness” that results in temporary or even permanent vision impairment. In extreme cases, it may even cause legal blindness.

When you look at any bright object, including the sun, you may “notice a dazzle effect, or a glare,” and you may even continue to see splotches when your eyes are closed. Bright lights or sudden exposure to light after a period of darkness can saturate certain retinal cells with pigment. This sensation is not necessarily evidence of damage in itself and within a few seconds or minutes your eyes should return to normal.

However, prolonged viewing of the sun can cause your retinas to burn. Since this part of the eye has no pain receptors, people with this injury will likely not notice its severity right away. According to Dr. B. Ralph Chou, president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and a former optometry professor, retina burn symptoms usually appear after about 12 hours.

“They can’t see faces in the mirror, they can’t read the newspaper or the smartphone display, they’re having trouble looking at road signs, and basically they’ve got this centre spot in their vision that is intensely blurred,” says Chou.

About half of people afflicted with retina burns completely recover their sight between three to 12 months after their injury, but others will have some level of permanent vision loss or impairment.

In the old days, the trusty shadow box offered people a way to view the eclipse without actually having to stare at the sun. But in recent years widely available solar glasses have allowed people to stare directly at the eclipse for short periods of time without risking injury.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous people have found the market for these glasses is ripe for counterfeit products. Shortly before the 2017 eclipse event, major online retailer Amazon began notifying some customers of a recall of some solar glasses that could not be verified as coming from reputable suppliers. Customers who did not receive notice of the recall and who suffered injuries from solar glasses knock-offs later launched a class action lawsuit.

According to the American Astronomical Society, safe solar eclipse glasses should be labelled with ISO 12312-2 (or ISO 12312-2:2015). The Society has also compiled a list of approved manufacturers. Some of these glasses have expiry dates, so if you choose to use them, ensure you buy new.

Remember, while people who regularly wear glasses can safely put solar glasses over top of them, if you plan on viewing the eclipse through binoculars, a camera lens, or telescopes, you will need different forms of protection for this equipment.

Have Fun and Stay Safe.

As we watch the weather forecast nervously and make final preparations for experiencing this spectacular natural event, let’s all ensure the 2024 eclipse is memorable for the right reasons by taking appropriate precautions.

In the event you or a loved one is hurt in a motor vehicle accident around the time of the eclipse, suffers a permanent eye injury due to someone else’s negligence, or experiences another serious personal injury, our team of personal injury lawyers at Gluckstein Lawyers is ready to help in any way we can. To tell us about what happened and to learn about your legal rights and options, contact us for an initial free consultation with no obligation.


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