The headlights that outfit the nation's automobiles recently received some intense scrutiny in a safety study. The results, however, were less than sterling, dealing a potential setback both for automakers and the motorists who aim to stay safe on the roads when the sun goes down.
Of the dozens of models that were evaluated for headlight brightness and visibility – both for motorists behind the wheel and oncoming vehicles – only one midsize earned a "good" rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's safety tests. Midsize is one of the more popular vehicle types among car buyers.
Most 'marginal' or 'poor'
Out of the nearly three dozen midsize automobiles evaluated, the Toyota Prius v was the only one that received more than a satisfactory rating from IIHS. The rest were either "acceptable," "marginal," or "poor." A near majority of them fell in the latter category, including the Buick Verano, Cadillac ATS, Chevrolet Malibu, and Hyundai Sonata.
IIHS used a variety of different criteria to assess headlight quality. For starters, glare was measured, as too much of it can be blinding for oncoming drivers. Also tested were the differences between low beam and high beams, two key elements that all headlights have the ability to toggle between when conditions permit. Headlight brilliance was measured based on how effective lighting was when vehicles were positioned in different directions, as they might be while a car is in motion, like when making sharp turns, on straightaways, or more gradual course corrections.
David Zuby, IIHS Executive Vice President and Chief Research Officer, said the study's results are an indication that drivers, who may think they're the ones that have the issue, are in reality in possession of a car that needs vision correction.
"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," Zuby explained.
Though none of the vehicles had headlights that were so insufficient as to be a safety hazard – in other words, they all passed government regulatory scrutiny – effective headlights can reduce the risk of being involved in an accident.
Matthew Brumbelow, IIHS Senior Research Engineer, indicated that the Prius' LED light system serves as a good example.
"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," Brumbelow highlighted. "In contrast, someone with the halogen lights would need to drive 20 mph slower in order to avoid a crash."
BMW 3 scores worst in headlight ratings
As for the vehicle that had the worst headlights, the BMW held the dubious distinction, IIHS found. The reason largely stems from the BMW 3 having halogen lights. Widely considered to be less radiant than LED lights despite using more energy, halogen lights require BMW motorists to be driving no faster than 35 miles per hour to stop before hitting an object that's in the middle of the road.
Still, halogen lighting has its utility under the right set of circumstances, as the Honda Accord 4-door uses them and still garnered an acceptable rating, IIHS found
Eleven models had headlights that were deemed acceptable by IIHS' rigorous set of standards. Many of the representatives were luxury car makers, including the Audi A3 and Lexus' ES and IS models.
Even though there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that serious car accidents occur more often at night, the numbers suggest as much. A 2007 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found 49% of highway fatalities happened in the evening hours, even though 75% of driving takes place in the daytime, Reuters reported.
As a consumer, one thing you can do to improve the radiance of your headlights is by cleaning them. Now that winter is in the rear-view mirror, there's a good chance that they could use a good scrub down from the salt and sand that kicks up from the roads. For some "bright ideas" on how to get them looking as good as new, Popular Mechanics magazine has a few helpful hints.