Most Vehicles’ Headlights Are Awful, But the IIHS Is Trying to Change That

You’ve probably been in a car with terrible headlights. Maybe you even own such a car. You have to strain to see the road in front of you, unless you have the high beams on, thereby blinding oncoming cars. With roughly half of all fatal accidents happening at night, headlights are an important part of car safety. Why aren’t headlights better?

Cars with headlights on | Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images


The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has been testing headlights for years

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been testing headlights for years. They recognize the seriousness of a vehicle not having quality headlights. The IIHS notes that while about half of fatal car accidents take place at night, more than a quarter happen on unlit roads. This means that having bright, effective headlights is essential to accident prevention. 

Once the IIHS established that many vehicles have terrible headlights, they sought to initiate an improvement. The IIHS gives two different safety awards, the Top Safety Pick and the Top Safety Pick+ award. As of 2020, the latter award can only be given if a vehicle comes standard with acceptable or better headlights on all available models. 

Many car manufacturers offer different trim levels of the same model of cars, and while some may have good headlights, others can have poor. To make matters worse, it can be difficult to find an actual car with good headlights, which partly drove the IIHS to establish this headlight criteria for the Top Safety Pick+ award.

There are certain standards headlights should meet

Car headlights don’t have to be terrible. They’re supposed to illuminate the road in front of the car without blinding oncoming drivers. The IIHS’ tests determine just how well they do this by evaluating both high beams and low beams. They also take into account how the headlights do on straight roads as well as those with curves. 

Good headlights should “illuminate the right side of the road ahead to at least 325 feet.” Poor ones would only illuminate up to or less than 220 feet. The IIHS gives bonus points to vehicles with systems that automatically switch back and forth between low and high beams. 

Car manufacturers are only starting to take good headlights seriously

David Aylor, the manager of active safety testing with the IIHS, says that car manufacturers are prioritizing luxury touches over headlights, which are “essential safety features.” He says, “Leather seats and sunroofs are nice, but you need high-quality headlights to avoid hazards.”

To combat car manufacturers lack of seriousness regarding headlights, the IIHS began rating headlights in 2016. They say that only “two of the 95 models IIHS tested earned a good rating.” After that, the IIHS began adding headlights as a category to their testing criteria. It worked: in 2020, “85 out of 185 models tested could be purchased with good-rated headlights.”

Now that the IIHS has made acceptable or better headlights standard on all available trim levels of a vehicle, it is likely that car manufacturers will start to take headlights more seriously. And with so many accidents occurring at times when good headlights are important, it can’t come soon enough.

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