Why Having Good Headlights is More Than a Bright Idea

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently released its list of this year’s safest passenger vehicles, and in doing so shined a light on a part of our cars we definitely don’t spend enough time thinking about:  headlights. Sure, you probably spend every commute home silently cursing that pickup truck behind you because of how bright its lights are, but what about yours?

Headlights are undoubtedly important. Not only do they allow us to see as we race through the night at highway speeds, but they also allow us to be seen. Problem is, many vehicles on the road today either have underperforming or inadequate headlights. Or, just as problematic, they have headlights so bright they blind the other drivers around them.

Of the 2019 vehicles that the IIHS tested this year, only 23 made it into its list of the best of the best — the TOP SAFETY PICK+ vehicles. Of those 23, only 6 were found to have headlights that were “good” as standard equipment:  the Genesis G70, Honda Insight, Hyundai Nexo, Lexus NX, Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid and Tesla Model 3. Added the IIHS in its press release, “A good rating means headlights provide the best balance of visibility and lack of excessive glare for drivers of oncoming vehicles.” The other 17 had headlights only considered to be acceptable.

But acceptable isn’t enough when pedestrian deaths are skyrocketing. It’s one of those topics we’ve talked about several – times – before, and while underperforming headlights cannot alone account for the increase, they are certainly a contributing factor. Reports the Los Angeles Times, “While crash fatality numbers have flattened out at about 37,000 a year, pedestrian deaths are soaring. The Governors Highway Safety Association said that 6,227 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2018, the highest level since 1990. In 2019, 134 pedestrians and 19 bicyclists were killed in Los Angeles.”

This increase poses a substantial risk to public safety, and should be cause for significant concern, and yet it’s only recently that automakers have begun making headlight safety a top priority. Even the IIHS itself has been behind the eightball, only folding a headlight test into its overall safety assessment in starting in 2016. Ever since car manufacturers have struggled to make the grade. The overwhelming majority find themselves receiving a “Marginal” or “Poor” rating, including many of the most popular vehicles on the road today.

The IIHS is a stickler for only testing headlights as they are upon reception from the dealer, but this is vital to properly simulate reality. Says the IIHS of this decision, “Although many headlight problems could be resolved by adjusting the aim of the lamps, IIHS doesn’t change headlight aim. Few vehicle owners adjust the vertical aim of their headlights, so leaving the aim the way it was set at the factory makes the testing more realistic. Horizontal aim also is important, but in most vehicles it can’t be changed after the initial factory setting.”

This is a problem, and one that some vehicle owners have attempted to fix themselves with a DIY approach, but there are dangers in taking things into your own hands. By adjusting your own headlights, your risk creating a beam of light that would blind oncoming traffic. And as we’ve all experienced, that can be pretty hazardous. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves seeing spots after being caught in the brights of an oncoming car? And who among us hasn’t struggled to see for minutes afterward?

Driving is a delicate dance of getting where you need to go, while also ensuring everyone else on the road gets where they’re going too. This seems a little obvious to state, but it’s one of those things that has to be thought about.

If you’re thinking about buying a car this year, perhaps put some consideration into getting one from the TOP SAFETY PICK+ list. You will find that below


Honda Insight

Mazda 3 hatchback

Mazda 3 sedan

Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid


Mazda 6

Nissan Maxima

Subaru Legacy

Subaru Outback (built after October 2019)

Toyota Camry


Lexus ES

Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan (with optional front crash prevention)

Tesla Model 3


Audi A6

Genesis G70 (built after December 2019)

Genesis G80


Mazda CX-3

Mazda CX-5 (with optional front crash prevention)

Subaru Forester


Acura RDX

Cadillac XT6 (built after October 2019)

Hyundai Nexo

Lexus NX

Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class (built after July 2019; with optional front crash prevention)

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Check Out These References for Further Reading:

How good are your car headlights? Here’s how technology is making them safer.” The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 February 2020.

2020 Top Safety Picks.” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Retrieved 21 February 2020.

64 vehicles earn 2020 IIHS awards, thanks to state-of-the-art safety.” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Retrieved 21 February 2020.

Safety advocates urge the U.S. to clear the way for smarter headlights.” The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 February 2020.

2020-02-21T17:16:09-08:00February 21st, 2020|Car Safety, Safe Driving|0 Comments