How good are your headlights

headlight regs dated
Halogen headlight from 2008 Ford Ranger
LED headlights, like those on the 2017 Mercedes C-Class coupe are the latest and brightest safety feature

It has been my great pleasure, and job, to drive hundreds of new vehicles every year for more than three decades. I have watched as manufacturers embraced new technologies. They have not only coped with increasingly strict – and necessary – regulations regarding safety and exhaust emissions, but made incredible advances across the board.


The one area that has lagged behind is that of headlights. Cars now carry cameras, computers and various warning systems and signals to make travel safer. But one piece of dated 20th-century technology is a safety risk for both pedestrians and drivers – headlights.

Round tungsten headlights were all that were allowed in 1959

The Washington-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has conducted a study on headlight effectiveness. It has concluded that two-thirds of the lighting systems on 21 small utility vehicles deliver “poor” performance. It gave the same rating to 10 mid-size cars and seven pickups. See the list below.


Another study, by AAA and the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center found low-beam headlights on 80% of vehicles on the road “may not provide adequate stopping distance at speeds above 40 miles per hour on unlit roadways.”


An article in USA Today quotes Michael Flanagan, a headlight expert at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. He says more than 2,500 pedestrians are killed at night every year crossing the road, “in many cases because drivers can’t see them because their headlights don’t shine brightly enough,.”


Figures for Canada are not available, but headlight systems, like the vehicles themselves are identical on both sides of the border, with few exceptions.

Jeep Wrangler halogen headlights typical of most systems

Only in Canada eh?


One of those exceptions, is that of Daytime Running Lights or DRLS as they are known. DRLs are a significant safety feature, a proven life-saver. However, the way the regulations are worded may result in lights operating at 50% of capacity and allows manufacturers to wire them into the vehicle’s instrument panel lighting system. The result is that drivers of many vehicles believe their headlights are on when they see some light from the front of the vehicle when starting out at night. In most cases they are at half available brightness and the taillights are not on. The driver is operating with reduced light from already questionable headlights, and following vehicles may not see them until it is too late.


Out-dated regulations prevent vehicle manufacturers from using a new generation of headlights that provide a clearly superior and longer view of the scene ahead, while automatically adjusting to oncoming traffic to prevent glare for oncoming drivers.

Prius LED headlights provide more illumination and less glare

Such systems are widely used throughout Europe and Asia.


Headlight regulations are the responsibility of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. For numerous reasons Canadian regulations are identical.


The move to bring the regulations into the modern world started with Toyota. In 2013 the company asked NHTSA to alter the rules to allow adaptive headlight technology. Other companies have followed suit, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Lexus petitioned the NHTSA to allow better lighting.

Four years later and the NHTSA has not made a decision. Like several other U.S. government agencies, it is operating without a permanent administrator under the Trump administration. Even when and if it does change the regs, it will take a couple of years for them to go into effect and longer for manufacturers to incorporate them into their full model range.    


The IIHS ratings are based on tests conducted after dark at the institute’s Vehicle Research Center. Light from both low and high beams is measured as vehicles are driven in five directions: straight, sharp left curve, sharp right curve, gradual left curve and gradual right curve. The study also measures glare from low beams for oncoming vehicles.


Here is the list of 2016 model-year SUVs whose best available headlight package is “poor, according to IIHS:


Audi Q3

Buick Encore

Chevrolet Trax

Fiat 500X

Honda HR-V

Jeep Patriot

Jeep Renegade

Jeep Wrangler

2017 Kia Sportage

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport

Nissan Rogue

Subaru Forester


2016 mid-size cars whose best available headlight package is “poor,” according to IIHS


Buick Verano

Cadillac ATS

Chevrolet Malibu

Chevrolet Malibu Limited (fleet model)

Hyundai Sonata

Kia Optima

Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Mercedes-Benz CLA

Nissan Altima

Volkswagen Passat


2016 pickups whose best available headlight package is “poor” according to IIHS


Chevrolet Silverado

Ford F-150

Toyota Tundra

Chevrolet Colorado

GMC Canyon

Nissan Frontier

Toyota Tacoma


The recent movement to HIDs (High Intensity Discharge) and LED (Light Emitting Diode) headlights has been noted in these studies. The USA Today article quotes Mathew Brumbelow, an IIHS senior research engineer as saying “The Prius V’s LED low beams should give a driver traveling straight at 70 mph enough time to identify an obstacle on the right side of the road, where the light is best, and brake to a stop. In contrast, someone with the halogen lights would need to drive 20 mph slower in order to avoid a crash.”


A little headlight history


The first cars used oil-based lamps for night time illumination. The first electric light with a glowing filament showed up in 1898.


Sealed beams came along in 1940 and those regulations and lights remained unchanged until 1957 when rectangular headlights were permitted. A few years later (1960) halogen was allowed to replace tungsten. Headlights still used a filament, but it could now be surrounded by an inert gas. The result was a whiter light with the first units appearing in some European cars in 1962 – they were prohibited in North America. Standard sized and shaped sealed beams were mandatory and the intensity allowed much lower.

Until 1978 the intensity of high beams in North America was restricted 37,500 candela on each side of the vehicle – compared to 140,000 in Europe. The NA limit was bumped to 75,000 in 1978.

About Richard 166 Articles
At the age of five I was already obsessed with all things automotive being able to identify the make and model of car by just the sound of its engine going down the street in front of our house in the small town on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Although I have been covering and writing about the automotive scene for more than 40 years and the light still grows brightly.