Headlights are improving, but most vehicles still perform poorly

IIHS finds good headlights are only used for more expensive versions of cars

Headlights are improving in new cars, but we're still not there yet, according the IIHS. When tests were run on headlights in the 2016 model year, only two vehicles came out the other side with "Good" ratings from the IIHS. For 2018, that number has skyrocketed to 32 vehicles getting the top honor — for reference, "Good" is the IIHS's highest rating for headlights. Another 58 models earned an "Acceptable" rating.

What the IIHS found, and what we also know to be true from driving them, is that the best headlights are only put on more expensive, higher trim level vehicles. For example, the Hyundai Kona uses LED projectors on its most expensive models, while the cheaper vehicles get your classic halogen lights. The IIHS found that the LED projectors allow drivers to see over twice as far as the halogens did. That's a big deal when you're driving 55 mph on a country road late at night. Deer don't look before jumping in front of your car, but being able to see them earlier could save your car, and maybe even you too. We don't mean to pick on the Kona specifically for this fault, because the IIHS says there are 17 other vehicles it tested with the same difference in test results between the standard and upgraded headlights. A further 43 models didn't even offer a trim with headlights rated above "Poor."

Our main problem (and most likely others', too) is that to get the better headlights, you have to spend more money. The thing is, nearly every other safety system besides headlights comes standard. It's important to note this has changed a bit recently with the proliferation of automatic emergency braking, lane keeping systems and others similar to those. However, there are never any option boxes to check related to having airbags, or stability control or anti-lock brakes. Why should headlights be treated any differently when they could make a huge difference in your ability to avoid a crash? One could make a similar argument for those emergency safety systems, which are starting to become standard in any new car that receives a full redesign.

Paying an extra $3,000 or $6,000 to move into a higher trim for adequate headlights is the only option for a ton of vehicles now. You may not even want many of the other extras that come with the fancy headlights, but bundling features in packages is how manufacturers keep the number of variations of a car down to save money. Making upgraded headlights a cheap, standalone option on many of these "Poor" rated vehicles would probably be a good start. Even then, selling cars with good performing headlights sounds like it's something we should be looking to make standard in vehicles.

Other interesting tidbits from the IIHS's study show that trucks suffer more than other types of vehicles. Only the Honda Ridgeline managed a "Good" rating, whereas the most popular pickups like the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado got a "Poor" rating in every single trim tested. Better aim and automatic brights are improving matters, but there are still a ton of vehicles receiving the IIHS's worst possible marks. You can check out the worst of them at the bottom of this page.

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