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In recent years, the number of standard and available safety features on new cars has increased. In addition to the essentials, like airbags and seatbelts, all new cars must include a backup camera as of 2018. Advanced features like pedestrian detection, forward-collision warning, and blind-spot monitors are also commonly included in some base trims.

However, there’s one important safety feature that many automakers have been neglecting: headlights. As the IIHS points out, headlights on new cars are rarely as up to snuff as they should be. Often, if you want good headlights, you’ll need to buy a more expensive model. Are headlights really that important for accident prevention?

How the IIHS rates headlights

The IIHS didn’t officially start testing the headlights on cars until 2016. This test measures how well both high and low beams illuminate the road on curves and a straight line. The headlights are also judged on how much glare they produce, which could affect the vision of other drivers. 

Only cars with Acceptable or above headlights are eligible for the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick Award. By the IIHS’s standards, cars with this title are some of the safest models you can buy. The headlights have to be available for all trims, not just the most expensive. To qualify as a Top Safety Pick+ winner, the car has to have ‘Good’ or better headlights.

How many new cars have acceptable headlights?

According to the IIHS, a startlingly low number of new cars possess capable headlights. Experts found that, out of 156 cars, only 37 of them had this important feature. The number of 2020 models with good headlights is even lower. 

Only six models come equipped with good headlights, including the Honda Insight and Subaru Crosstrek. The IIHS hopes that the number of vehicles with good headlights will increase once mid-year changes roll out.

A frequent cause for concern

The safety testers at IIHS aren’t the only ones who have noticed this problem. Sites like CarComplaints and RepairPal are full of dissatisfied drivers reporting bad headlights on otherwise good cars. One of the most common issues for the GMC Sierra 1500 is poor headlights, especially on models from 2014.

Even a trip to the dealer couldn’t solve the problem: that was just the way the headlights were made. Other cars known for terrible headlights include the Jeep Cherokee and the Cadillac SRX. The latter had such severe issues that a lawsuit was filed against General Motors.

Why good headlights are an important feature

A good set of headlights is arguably just as important for avoiding accidents as any advanced safety feature. According to IIHS data, many accidents occur on dark roads. Experts speculate that some of these incidents could be avoided if cars had better headlights.

This has also been proven in certain studies over the years. The Highway Loss Data Institute found that cars with adaptive headlights installed were 10% more likely to avoid accidents. These headlights turn along with the steering wheel while the car makes a turn. Adaptive headlights have been around for decades, but they are seldom offered as standard equipment.

What are automakers doing about this?

Thankfully, it seems some automakers are making an effort to turn this situation around. A total of 36 cars had ‘Poor’ headlights last year, but only 30 cars got this rating for 2020. Additionally, headlights with a ‘Good’ rating are available as upgrades for 55 of the tested models.

Still, the fact that drivers must pay extra for such a basic safety feature is troubling. It’s apparent that manufacturers obviously have the technology for better headlights. It’s hard to think of any reason why they shouldn’t be implemented into every given car’s standard trim.