Headlights are still an afterthought on many vehicles

February 18, 2020

Many more vehicles are available with headlights that illuminate an acceptable distance ahead without blinding oncoming drivers in 2020 than in previous years. Yet base models with headlights that earn a good rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety remain rare.

“Many carmakers still treat high-quality headlights as extras, rather than essential safety features,” says David Aylor, manager of active safety testing at IIHS. “Leather seats and sunroofs are nice, but you need high-quality headlights to avoid hazards.”

About half of all fatal crashes in the U.S. occur in the dark, and more than a quarter occur on unlit roads. Nevertheless, manufacturers have historically sold many models with several different headlight systems of varying quality.

For the first time in 2020, headlights that earn at least an acceptable rating must be installed across all the variants for sale, rather than merely available as options, for a vehicle to qualify for the highest IIHS award, TOP SAFETY PICK+.

Only 6 of the 156 models that IIHS has rated so far come with good-rated headlights across the board. On another 31 models, acceptable headlights are the lowest-rated ones that are offered. That marks a 7 percent increase over the number of 2019 models available exclusively with good or acceptable headlights. The 2020 results could change as the Institute evaluates additional models and manufacturers implement midyear changes.

Out of the 37 models with standard good or acceptable headlights, 23 earn the TOP SAFETY PICK+ award. The other 14 fall short on other crashworthiness or collision avoidance criteria.

On the other side of the spectrum, 30 of the 2020 models tested can only be purchased with poor headlights, compared with 36 in 2019.

Manufacturers have also continued their more rapid progress in offering good headlights as options. When IIHS began rating headlights in 2016, the best-available headlights on only two of the 95 models IIHS tested earned a good rating. In 2020, good-rated headlights are available on 55 out of 156 models evaluated.

When good-rated headlights have been offered as an option, manufacturers haven’t always produced vehicles equipped with them in large numbers, however.

“We try to rate all the headlights offered by each manufacturer, but sometimes it’s a struggle to find some of the optional, high-end systems at local dealerships,” says Aylor. “If we have trouble finding them to test, how can consumers be expected to find them to purchase?”

IIHS rates headlights on the distance that they illuminate the road as the vehicle travels straight and on curves. The tests evaluate both low beams and high beams. On a straightaway, good-rated low beams illuminate the right side of the road ahead to at least 325 feet. Poor ones might light up 220 feet or even less.

IIHS engineers also deduct points for headlights that produce glare that can momentarily blind oncoming drivers. Extra credit is awarded for systems that automatically switch between high beams and low beams, since research shows that most drivers don’t use their high beams enough.

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