You’re driving home after a long day at work. It’s dark. You’re anxious to see your family, and you are just trying to concentrate on staying between the lines, so you can get home as soon as possible. And then suddenly you see something in the road — nearly too late — and you swerve to avoid hitting it. You grip your steering wheel so hard that your knuckles turn white, as you come to the realization that you were almost in a serious accident.
This scenario is all too familiar to most people, and usually, we blame ourselves. We assume we were distracted, tired, or just plain “don’t drive well at night.” What many drivers don’t realize is that some nighttime car accidents are not caused by any of those factors, but rather, headlights that aren’t doing their job.
“If you’re having trouble seeing behind the wheel at night, it could very well be your headlights and not your eyes that are to blame,” said David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The results of a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that when it comes to many cars, the best available headlight systems are simply not good enough. After testing 31 new, mid-size cars and 82 sets of headlights, the IIHS declared the results to be “dismal.” Only 1 vehicle, the Toyota Prius v, received a “Good” rating — over half of the cars were labeled as “Marginal” or “Poor”, while slightly less than one-third were “Acceptable.”
How Do We Know If Our Car’s Headlights Aren’t Doing Their Job?
While it may feel like there are strict government regulations in place for just about everything, current headlight standards allow for a little too much variation on the road. Because there are so many different types of headlights and lighting technologies — from halogen, to curve-adaptive, as well as high-intensity discharge, and LED — the IIHS did not want their study to favor one variation of headlight over another. They created their rating system with one primary goal in mind: to reward systems “that produce ample illumination without excessive glare for drivers of oncoming vehicles.”
To establish a fair and impartial method for evaluation, the IIHS assessed each vehicle the same way: After dark – at the IIHS Research Center in Ruckersville, Virginia. The headlights were tested as received from the dealer, and although most vehicles have adjustable headlights, the IIHS did not change the aim at any point because most owners never do (and are advised not to by the vehicle manufacturers). Here are the researchers came to their findings:
- Light from both low beams and high beams was measured with a special device as the car was driven 5 different ways: traveling straight, a sharp left curve, a sharp right curve, a gradual left curve, and a gradual right curve.
- Glare for oncoming vehicles was measured from low beams.
- Using a hypothetical “ideal” headlight system, researchers compared each vehicle’s track results and then utilized a demerit system to come up with a rating.
- In order to receive no “demerits”, a vehicle could not exceed the low-beam glare threshold and provide illumination to at least 5 lux over specified distances, which ranged from nearly 200 feet for low beams on a sharp curve, to nearly 500 feet for high beams on the straightaway.
- Low-beam results were weighted more heavily because drivers use them more often. Likewise, because more accidents occur on straight stretches of road, those results were also weighted more heavily.
- If a vehicle was equipped with high-beam assist, they may have earned back some points.
- If excessive glare was apparent at any point, a vehicle was unable to receive more than a “Marginal” rating.
Results Show American Drivers Are the Unfortunate Losers
While the Toyota Prius v was the lone vehicle to receive a “Good” rating, even that came with an asterisk. The “Good” rating only stands when the Prius v is equipped with LED lights and high-beam assist, which come with the advanced technology package — an add-on only available at the highest trim level. With regular halogen lights and without high-beam assist, the Prius v joins the majority of the pack with a “Poor” rating.
The IIHS found the worst headlights to be the halogen lights on the BMW 3 series, proving that luxury cars don’t always offer the highest quality.
For the 31 vehicles tested, the best available headlight systems for each model were ranked the following ways:
- Toyota Prius v
- Audi A3
- Honda Accord 4-door
- Infiniti Q50
- Lexus ES
- Lexus IS
- Mazda 6
- Nissan Maxima
- Subaru Outback
- Volkswagen CC
- Volkswagen Jetta
- Volvo S60
- Acura TLX
- Audi A4
- BMW 2 series
- BMW 3 series
- Chrysler 200
- Ford Fusion
- Lincoln MKZ
- Subaru Legacy
- Toyota Camry
- Buick Verano
- Cadillac ATS
- Chevrolet Malibu
- Chevrolet Malibu Limited
- Hyundai Sonata
- Kia Optima
- Mercedes-Benz C-Class
- Mercedes-Benz CLA
- Nissan Altima
- Volkswagen Passat
While the results of the study are quite alarming, researchers at the IIHS are hoping to start a dialogue about headlight safety standards in our country. By calling attention to the obvious shortcomings and safety threats, car manufacturers will hopefully do the right thing and begin making and selling vehicles that have high-functioning headlights that provide drivers with clear visibility.
“We believe the new headlight rating system will encourage better headlight designs and that we’ll even be able to look 5 years from now at the crash data and hopefully see the reduction that’s happened,” said Matthew Brumbelow, a senior research engineer at IIHS, while speaking with ABC News.