Most of us buy a car without ever considering the quality of the vehicle’s headlights. Yet, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), we should.
Nearly half of all fatal auto accidents occur after dark, with more than a fourth occurring on unlit roads. Obviously, headlights play a role in reducing/preventing nighttime crashes, but recent studies have shown that not all headlights perform their job sufficiently. Differences in bulb type, headlight technology, and even how the lights are aimed all affect the amount of useful light supplied.
Over the past two years, studies have shown that many vehicles sold today have inadequate headlights, despite recent strides in lighting technology.
Researchers at IIHS conducted a battery of tests simulating real-life situations after dark. A special device measured how far light was projected from both the low beams and high beams as the vehicles were driven straight and around curves. They also measured whether the lights created excessive glare for oncoming vehicles. The agency did not favor one lighting technology over another; ratings were given based solely on if they produced ample illumination without excessive glare. The overwhelming results showed that most vehicle headlights are not good enough to see the road ahead, as well as other motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and obstacles.
The first study, limited to midsize cars, was released in March 2016. Evaluating 31 mid-size cars resulted in only one receiving a “good,” the institute's highest rating. Of the rest, about a third were rated "acceptable," a third "marginal," and a third "poor." Last year, the institute reported that only two midsize SUV's out of 37 were available with "good" headlights and 12 were “acceptable,” leaving 23 models in the "marginal" or "poor" ranges.
According to an IIHS senior research engineer, there are several major factors that contributed to the concerning results.
Carmakers test headlights in a laboratory setting rather than on actual outdoor roadways at night.
The federal standard is not only outdated, but there are no specifications regarding the placement or aim of the headlights.
European-made vehicles follow stricter regulations regarding glare from on-coming vehicles. Thus, cars imported from Europe often come with headlights that aim their light lower. Despite reduced glare, however, lower light results in poorer visibility.
Many carmakers have sacrificed adequate illumination in favor of styling and aesthetics.
The institute hopes its studies will encourage the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to improve standards or inspire automakers to make better headlights on their own. However, changing official standards is a long process that can take years. Until then, the IIHS is urging all carmakers to produce headlights that guarantee better visibility for all drivers. Until then, what can drivers do? The agency recommends using high beams, when possible.