Headlight Ratings: What You Need to Know

Vehicle headlights

“They don't build 'em like they used to." This old saying about cars usually points out a lack of safety features, like missing seat belts in your grandfather's '49 Pontiac. While we've come a long way from the old sealed-beam headlight and newer vehicles are much safer than yesterday's, modern headlights may come up short. A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rated dozens of new vehicles as marginal or poor in headlight performance. Is yours on the list?

Car trek: Into darkness

With half of all fatal accidents occurring after dark, headlight safety is an important factor in accident avoidance. Similar to a vehicle's crash safety rating, the IIHS conducts tests to rank new vehicle headlights. An IIHS headlight evaluation consists of engineers testing light output at night, showing us just how far the headlights can produce a light illumination of 5 lux. Illumination is measured at several distances, and in straight-line and curved conditions that simulate roads. A lack of illumination with a high amount of glare on the low beam setting will produce a low score.

Most vehicles, regardless of MSRP or optional equipment, fell into the marginal or poor rating category. The Toyota Prius V led the list of car headlight ratings, earning the only good score in the entire mid-size category. SUV headlight ratings were all over the place, with the Hyundai Santa Fe and Volvo XC60 taking the category's only good scores. Poor scores varied by the manufacturer and price point, with everything from a Jeep Wrangler and Toyota 4Runner to the Infiniti QX60 and Lincoln MKX all earning failing grades. Have a truck? Most are no better, with only a loaded Honda Ridgeline with LED projectors earning a good score.

The IIHS study said, however, there is hope on the horizon, as innovative tech can help overcome insufficient low beams. High beam assist is a feature that increases high beam use by automatically switching to high beams when not approached by oncoming traffic. Turn-adapting headlights will pivot with the direction of travel, allowing the driver to see more clearly around corners. LED and HID headlights are quickly replacing halogens and can provide extra light even on low beams. Still, if you don't want to sell your brand-new vehicle just for some better nighttime driving, there are a few solutions.

Looking on the bright side

If you are squinting into the dark, it's time for your own headlight evaluation. Start by cracking open your owner's manual and looking up how to align headlights. Also check YouTube for tips on your specific vehicle, or start with this handy how-to. Fixing headlight alignment varies by the vehicle, but it can be as simple as turning the adjustment knobs on the back of the headlight. These knobs or screws will allow for fine adjustment on both the vertical and horizontal axes. Sometimes alignment is not possible on newer vehicles, as the housing is fixed and the bulbs self-align.

If your vehicle is a few years older and the headlights are looking cloudy, you can defog the plastic headlight housing. There are several products that help you restore your plastic headlights, and they are affordable and effective. They all work about the same way, stripping off the outer layer of crud, then polishing the outside to a clear sheen. Follow the directions, and you can't go wrong. For headlight lenses that aren't too heavily oxidized, ordinary rubbing compound might do the trick, along with some elbow grease.

If you still haven't found the lighting you are looking for, it's time to upgrade with better bulbs. The brightest headlight bulbs aren't made by the OEMs, so don't look to a dealership for better performance here. You can see the difference in an aftermarket bulb, like Sylvania's XtraVision or SilverStar bulbs, which are brighter and deliver more light farther down the road. They're an easy swap, too, averaging a half hour job for a novice. If you're changing headlight bulbs, remember to wear cotton gloves while handling the new bulbs. Oil from skin can damage the glass and shorten the life of the bulb.

You don't have to suffer with inadequate headlights. If your vehicle's headlights are rated poor, take steps to fix them.

Last updated September 8, 2017

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