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IIHS Is Cracking Down On Headlight Quality

The headlights on the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, which has not yet been rated by IIHS. Ratings on the 2019 model consisted of both IIHS’ lowest and highest grade, depending on the trim level.
The headlights on the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, which has not yet been rated by IIHS. Ratings on the 2019 model consisted of both IIHS’ lowest and highest grade, depending on the trim level.
Image: Hyundai

We may be going into the year 2020 as automakers talk of a future centered on autonomy and electrification, but in terms of the car technology we have in the year 2019, one is still severely lacking: headlights. But the IIHS wants to change that, and will try to do so by hinging its safety awards on quality headlights.

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is the formal name for IIHS, which is the place many people in the United States consult when they want to know how safe their car, or the car they want to buy, is. The organization was founded by several insurance associations in 1959, and, 60 years later, is still crashing cars and commending them when they do well.

But IIHS tests more than just crashworthiness, and headlights have been a point of stubbornness since the organization began rating them in 2016. Thus, for its automaker-coveted 2020 safety awards, IIHS is changing the rules—in order to qualify for the top IIHS award in 2020, a model will have to offer decently rated headlights as standard on even the cheapest of trims.

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Here’s a rundown of the added 2020 criteria, from IIHS’ announcement on it:

Good or acceptable headlights need to be standard equipment next year for a vehicle to qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+, the highest award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In addition, front crash prevention that earns at least an advanced rating in both the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian evaluations will have to be available. Previously, only the vehicle-to-vehicle rating was required.

The front crash prevention requirements will also apply to the second tier of awards, TOP SAFETY PICK. Available good or acceptable headlights will be required for that award too, though, like this year, they won’t need to be standard.

IIHS has four headlight ratings—poor, marginal, acceptable and good—and the key for the new criteria is that cars getting the top award, the Top Safety Pick+, will have to offer headlights with one of IIHS’ top two ratings as standard. Currently, the top award announcements often come with a disclaimer: that a model earned it on variations “equipped with specific headlights.” That’ll be no more with the new rules because carmakers won’t be able to get away with offering bad headlights on lower trims if they want the top award.

IIHS had a quick summary on why that’s necessary—essentially, because after several years of ratings, headlights still aren’t great:

Only three headlight systems from the 2016 model year earned a good rating out of 224 evaluated by IIHS. Another 36 earned an acceptable rating. Since then, the number of good and acceptable ratings has greatly increased. In the 2019 model year, 68 out of 465 systems evaluated were rated good, and 103 were rated acceptable.

However, many of those good- or acceptable-rated headlights are available only as part of optional packages or on higher trim levels. Consumers need to pay special attention if they want to buy a vehicle equipped with them.

IIHS is aiming to address this problem by requiring 2020 TOP SAFETY PICK+ winners to be available only with good or acceptable headlights. That applies equally to expensive lighting options and base headlights.

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Variation in headlight quality has been shown as a big issue since IIHS began its ratings, too. Many models offer a wide range of headlight types, and quality, depending on trims and options, meaning the same car can have ratings that range from “poor” all the way to “good.”

Poor headlights can not only jeopardize safety for the driver of the car with the poor headlights but other drivers as well, due to the fact that ratings can also be docked for things like excessive glare. Having a range of headlight ratings on the same model can also be confusing for buyers, who might go for an award-winning car without realizing that they chose the trim that was the exception.

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But at least for the models that get IIHS’ top award, the Top Safety Pick+, there will be less ambiguity in the future. That’s not only a good thing for new-car buyers but also for the drivers around them.

Staff writer, Jalopnik

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DISCUSSION

Can the IIHS tackle DRL LEDs that are so bright the driver thinks their headlights are on even when they’re not? I run into this all the time now, because dashboards are always lit, even with the headlights off, and DRLs are so bright the owners think their lights are on. I’ve been stuck behind someone without their lights off for miles, flashing my brights at them every few seconds and they never caught on.

It started with the Rogue (which is still the worst offender) because Nissan is too cheap to include automatic headlights, but now I’m seeing it on Hondas and Toyotas all the time, too.