Chances are, when you purchased your most recent vehicle, headlight performance was not a deciding factor. But, since most of us don’t like to take chances with our safety and that of our passengers, it is worthy of consideration, especially in light of the most recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
In April, PVI wrote an article on the first study the IIHS conducted on headlights, which focused on midsize vehicles: Shining Some Light on Headlights. That study revealed that factory-installed headlights did not fare well. The most recent study focused on small SUVs, and the results were even worse.
Of the 21 SUVs tested, not one earned a “Good” rating based on IIHS’s headlight evaluations. There are 47 different headlight combinations available for the 21 SUVs, but only four received an “Acceptable” rating. More than two-thirds of them were rated “Poor.”
Government standards for headlights are based on laboratory tests, which don’t accurately gauge performance in actual road conditions. The fact that half of all traffic deaths occur either in the dark or around dawn or dusk illustrates the importance of such tests for optimal headlight performance. IIHS engineers evaluate headlights on the Vehicle Research Center’s track after dark. A special device is used to measure how far the light is projected as the vehicle is driven on five approaches: traveling straight, a sharp left curve, a sharp right curve, a gradual left curve and a gradual right curve.
The IIHS rating system doesn’t favor one type of technology over the other. Instead, it simply measures the amount of usable light provided by low beams and high beams as vehicles travel on straightaways and curves. However, vehicles can earn extra credit if they have high-beam assist, which automatically switches between high and low beams based on the presence of other vehicles.
Seventeen of the rated SUV headlight combinations have unacceptable glare. “Glare issues are usually a result of poorly aimed headlights,” says IIHS Senior Research Engineer Matthew Brumbelow. “SUV headlights are mounted higher than car headlights, so they generally should be aimed lower. Instead, many of them are aimed higher than the car headlights we’ve tested so far.”
As with midsize cars, the IIHS evaluations of small SUVs showed that a vehicle’s price tag doesn’t correspond to the quality of headlights. More modern lighting types, including high-intensity discharge (HID) and LED lamps, and curve-adaptive systems, which swivel in the direction of steering, also are no guarantee of good performance.
“Manufacturers aren’t paying enough attention to the actual on-road performance of this basic equipment,” says Brumbelow. “We’re optimistic that improvements will come quickly now that we’ve given automakers something to strive for.”
IIHS Headlight Ratings for Small SUVs
Best available headlight system for each model. (2016 models unless specified)
2017 Ford Escape
2017 Kia Sportage
Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses — deaths, injuries and property damage — from crashes on the nation’s roads.
The Highway Loss Data Institute shares and supports this mission through scientific studies of insurance data representing the human and economic losses resulting from the ownership and operation of different types of vehicles and by publishing insurance loss results by vehicle make and model.
Both organizations are wholly supported by auto insurers.