Advances in technology have resulted in a number of innovations to auto headlights, however these improvements don’t necessarily lead to a better performing headlight. According to four recent studies by the independent non-profit research group, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), most headlights are simply not good enough. For example, in 2017 the IIHS awarded a “good” headlight rating to only 2 of 37 midsize SUVs assessed. In addition, most car buyers don’t test drive a vehicle at night, meaning that headlight performance can often be overlooked when purchasing a new or used car.
Knowing what to look for in a car headlight is the first step to having the right tools for nighttime driving. Below we shed the light on some key features to look for, how to properly use headlights, and some nighttime driver safety tips to keep you safe.
What to look for in a headlight
Type of light
Most headlights use one of three light sources: halogen, high-intensity discharge (HID), or LED. Each of these can be paired with either reflectors or projector lenses. Projector headlights use one lens to spread the light out, while reflectors have multiple surfaces that bounce the light forward.
Cornering / Axis control
Projector lenses and HID headlight variants generally produce good results in headlight tests. When paired with a cornering / axis controlled headlight swivel, these lights effectively light the road in the direction of the car’s trajectory – especially when travelling along curved roads.
An additional safety feature to look for is an optional high-beam assist, which automatically switches between high beams and low beams depending on the presence of other vehicles. This can help increase the use of high-beams, while simultaneously mitigating the risk of blinding oncoming vehicles with headlight glare, a common safety complaint from drivers according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
How to properly use car headlights
Time of day
Most vehicles come with automatic daytime running lights, which are automatically activated when your vehicle is turned on. Turning on your headlights activates other required vehicle light systems, including parking lights, tail lights, and other optional vehicle lighting features. Headlights are legally required to be turned on 30min before sunset and 30 min after sunrise, in addition to during any poor lighting conditions such as fog, snow or rain. When turned on, your vehicle’s headlights will illuminate a minimum of 150 m of roadway.
Low beam vs. high beam
The general rule of thumb is to use low beam lighting when you are on a road with a number of other passing vehicles, in an effort to prevent glare – for example, city driving. High beams are recommended use for driving on dimly lit roads or to enhance your vision further down the road way. This is particularly helpful when driving in areas where wildlife may be present. Just remember to turn down your headlights when an approaching vehicle is within 60 m, or when you come to a curve or hilltop in the road.
When driving in fog, opt to use low beam headlights or optional fog lights, as high beams reflect off the moisture in the fog, further reducing visibility. The same can be said of heavy rain, snow or sleet. Anytime your visibility is less than 150 m due to weather – opt for your low beams.