The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has been harping on automakers to improve headlights for years. Even AAA is fed up with the slow progress in headlights. But this year IIHS found a way to get more automakers to fix their bad headlights, and it’s actually working.
How the IIHS did it was straightforward: The insurer-funded group required headlight ratings to be Acceptable or Good for a marque’s vehicle to qualify for the Top Safety Pick+ award in 2020. (Two lower ratings, Marginal and Poor, also exist.) The Top Safety Pick+ ranking is given to the vehicles that not only pass the group’s six crashworthiness tests but also meet additional criteria, including headlight performance. It’s a goal automakers push to achieve. These requirements are the safety group’s latest phase in improving headlights since they started testing them five years ago.
Many 2020 models fell short of a Top Safety Pick+ because of the change, resulting in some manufacturers simply ditching poorly rated headlights.
IIHS determines how good a headlight performs based on the distance a vehicle’s low beams and high beams illuminate straight and curved roads. On a straight road, a low beam rated Good will cast light down at least 325 feet of roadway. Meanwhile, a low beam rated Poor could light up only 220 feet or less. Points are further deducted for lights that blind oncoming drivers and points are awarded for features that automatically switch between low and high beams.
For the 2020 model year, 85 out of the 185 models tested by the IIHS could be purchased with headlights rated Good. But only eight of those models had the Good headlights as standard equipment.
The 2021 model year is looking even better, as 10 vehicles have earned a Top Safety Pick+ simply by no longer offering the lights rated Marginal or Poor. Such vehicles include the Audi A7, Honda Accord, Hyundai Palisade, Mazda CX-30, Nissan Altima, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, Volvo S60, Volvo XC40 and Volvo XC60. The Honda Odyssey also earned a Top Safety Pick+ after the elimination of two headlight choices and testing of its pedestrian crash avoidance system.
According to IIHS, about half of all fatal crashes in the United States occur in the dark, and more than a quarter of them on unlit roads.
Good headlights can save lives. It’s amazing you can still buy new cars in America with headlights that do little more than meet minimum federal requirements, so it makes me happy automakers appear to be committing to better and safer lighting tech. If your car came with crappy headlights and you want to make them better, be sure to get a setup that won’t blind everyone.