‘Advancements’ in headlight technology challenged in two new reports

By Jami Jones, managing editor

Truckers have long ranted about the influx of brighter headlights creating unbearable glare, ultimately reducing visibility for others on the road. Recent reports by an insurance industry group further confirm that there really can be too much of a good thing when it comes to headlights – especially when it comes to the blinding glare many passenger vehicles create.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, best known for its crash tests and subsequent rankings of safest passenger vehicles known as the "Top Safety Pick," has taken on headlight testing of passenger vehicles, releasing two reports in 2016. One could say the reports are anything but glowing.

The Institute measured headlight performance in five categories: straightaway and gradual curves to the left and right, as well as sharp curves to the left and right. Visibility for the passenger car drivers was measured as well as glare experienced by approaching vehicles. Vehicles with excessive glare in any of the five measurement categories were not eligible for ratings above "marginal."

Two rounds of testing were conducted, one on pickup trucks and one on passenger cars. The 11 pickups evaluated have a total of 23 possible headlight combinations. Fourteen of the combinations have excessive glare, contributing to the pickups’ poor ratings. Only one, the Honda Ridgeline, received a "good" rating.

Cars didn’t do much better. Out of 31 cars tested only 11 received an "acceptable" rating. Ten could not be purchased with anything other than poor-rated headlight packages. Factor in all of the different combinations of lighting packages offered on different models, and the Institute tested 82 combinations. Only one vehicle, the Toyota Prius received a "good" rating.

Interestingly enough, the price of the vehicle was no guarantee you’re getting good headlights, the Institute noted in its March 2016 report.

"A (passenger) vehicle’s price tag is no guarantee of decent headlights. Many of the poor-rated headlights belong to luxury vehicles," a press release on the passenger car report noted.

Vision and visibility are top concerns for truck drivers. The lighting industry has been rolling out new technology for years. As it continues to evolve, things do not seem to be getting better – or safer.

"Recent advances in headlight technology make it a good time to focus on the issue. In many vehicles, high-intensity discharge (HID) or LED lamps have replaced halogen ones. Curve-adaptive headlights, which swivel according to steering input, are also becoming more widespread," the Institute noted in its March report.

"Research has shown advantages for the new headlight types, but they don’t guarantee good performance. The Institute’s headlight rating system doesn’t favor one lighting technology over the other, but simply rewards systems that produce ample illumination without excessive glare for drivers of oncoming vehicles."

Criticism of headlights is not new with the Institute’s ratings reports.

HID (high-intensity discharge) lamps have been controversial since 1996 when a change in NHTSA standards first permitted them. They appeared that year on Lincoln Continentals. The introduction of LED (light-emitting diode) headlamps in 2006 has kept the blinding-headlight controversy going.

Prompted by complaints, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted a number of studies during the 2000s. The last report issued in July 2008 said, among other things, that "The relation of light levels and glare to crash risk cannot be quantified directly." The report also noted that "light levels are a compromise. A glare source to one driver is a source of seeing light to another driver."

That 2008 report is the last time that NHTSA has publicly addressed the performance of headlights. Yet, in recent years, highway fatalities from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. remain steady at 35 percent of all fatal crashes, with full 2015 data yet to be released. Time will tell if continued industry pressure will prompt a government look into headlight performance and functional solutions to problems.

In the meantime, the Institute plans to add the headlight testing criteria to its "Top Safety Pick" testing for personal vehicles starting in 2017.

(Staff Writer and Research Associate Tyson Fisher and Contributing Editor-At-Large John Bendel contributed to this article.)