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How good are your car headlights? Here's how technology is making them safer

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Automotive News

How good are your headlights? Probably not as good as you think.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on Thursday issued a list of the 23 safest 2020 passenger vehicles, based mainly on the institute's crash worthiness tests.

Of those 23 vehicles, only six offer top-rated headlights as standard equipment, the IIHS said: the Genesis G70, the Honda Insight, the Hyundai Nexo, the Lexus NX, the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid and the Tesla Model 3. The headlights on the other 17 models on the list are rated as "acceptable."

"Few vehicles have headlights that do their job well," according to the IIHS.

Manufacturers are increasingly replacing old-style halogen bulbs with LEDs, which provide more light per unit of energy. But that's not enough, said David Harkey, president of the institute, which is the research and safety arm of the insurance industry.

Design of the lamp assembly and integration with the car body is key, as are improved manufacturing processes "to make sure the tolerances they need for aim of headlights is much tighter," he said.


Safer headlights provide "the best balance of visibility and lack of excessive glare for oncoming vehicles," the IIHS said in a news release. New headlight technologies available on higher-end cars include swiveling lamps that follow curves and high beams that turn on automatically on dark roads and turn off when an oncoming car is detected.

"People don't use their high beams as often as they should," Harkey said. About half of all traffic fatalities occur between dusk and dawn, he said.

It seems obvious that good headlights help reduce crashes and the deaths of drivers, passengers and pedestrians. But until recently, automakers have not made headlight quality a safety priority, according to the IIHS. "Achieving good or acceptable scores has been a challenge to the automakers," Harkey said.

The IIHS began testing and publicly ranking headlights in 2016. According to Harkey, that goosed automakers into action. Besides the human carnage, crashes and deaths cost the insurance industry money through payouts and lawsuits.


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