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Are Your Car Headlights Bright Enough?

Maximize your nighttime vision by choosing the right lights or restoring what you have

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​Most drivers don’t think about their headlights. They get in the car, turn them on and hit the road.

Yet headlights are an essential safety feature, says David Aylor, vice president of active safety testing at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Ruckersville, Virginia. In fact, about half of U.S. traffic deaths occur when it’s dark outside or at dusk and dawn.

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“It’s about three times riskier to drive at night, so headlights are extremely important in letting drivers see adequately down the road and see dangerous situations,” Aylor says. “If your headlights don’t provide enough visibility, you may not have enough recognition and braking time to respond to an emergency event.

Night vision deteriorates as people age, and a 50-year-old old driver might need twice as much light to see as well as a 30-year-old, according to the National Safety Council. Depth perception, peripheral vision and color recognition can also be compromised when it’s dark out — all of which makes it critical that you ensure that your car’s headlights are operating as they should.

Are your headlights up to snuff?

A 2021 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study revealed that better headlights can help prevent nighttime car accidents, yet many cars on the road don’t provide adequate on-road illumination — and most motorists don’t even notice. Federal headlight standards haven’t changed since the late 1970s, when American cars featured standard-size glass headlamps that were either round or square, Aylor says.

Customized headlights with replaceable bulbs began appearing in the mid-1980s, and reflective technology has changed since then, with the arrival of halogen and LED lights. Today headlight intensity and aim vary widely because manufacturers use different bulb types and aiming systems.

When IIHS began testing headlights in 2015, the results were shocking: After evaluating more than 80 headlight systems on 31 midsize cars, IIHS gave only one a rating of good, Aylor says.

“We give ratings of good, acceptable, marginal and poor, and the first several years, over 50 percent of the vehicle headlights had a poor rating,” he says.

While testing a vehicle’s crashworthiness, IIHS also evaluates the car’s headlight performance on straightaways and curves. It measures how far down the road headlights illuminate and whether they produce glare for oncoming vehicles.

“Older drivers’ eyes don’t adjust as quickly from low light to high light, so glare can be a bigger issue for them, and we want to make sure that the headlights are providing good visibility without producing glare,” Aylor says.

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Automakers are improving headlights

Eager to receive the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick award, many manufacturers have significantly improved their headlights, Aylor says. The IIHS’s latest findings, released in 2021, rated one-third of the 400 evaluated headlight systems as good. However, half the headlights tested were deemed marginal or poor due to insufficient visibility, excessive glare or both. And surprisingly, the most expensive vehicles don’t always include highly-rated headlights, notes Aylor.

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“We have plenty of examples of luxury cars that offer a base headlight that doesn’t perform well,” he says.

For customers to get good-rated headlights, they must often purchase an optional package, Aylor adds. However, buyers researching new vehicles should note that vehicles that receive a Top Safety Pick rating are equipped with at least good or acceptable headlights.

“We want to make sure a consumer doesn’t have to think about what trim or package they’re going to buy; they’ll know that if they buy this particular vehicle, they’re going to have decent headlights,” he says.

Aylor encourages motorists to check the IIHS ratings, which are listed by vehicle class. Current Top Safety Picks represent the best-rated headlight systems for the model 2023 year. Aylor also suggests asking about headlights when shopping for a new car, and test-driving a vehicle at night to see how the headlights perform.

Even top-rated headlights need TLC

Most headlight lenses are constructed with polycarbonate plastic, which is durable but vulnerable to the elements, especially the sun. Manufacturers apply a UV protective film, but over time, sun exposure breaks down the coating’s UV inhibitors, resulting in yellowing and cloudiness, especially on cars not stored in a garage, explains David Castro, owner of OKC Headlights in Oklahoma City. You can help preserve the life of your headlights and lenses with preventive maintenance, such as garaging your car and washing it by hand.

“Automatic car washes and rock pitting or peppering from highway driving affect lens life, wearing down the surface,” explains Castro. “Hand-washing not only extends the life of the headlights, but your paint and trim will last longer as well.”

If you do go to an automatic wash, choose a gentler one, advises Greg Buckley, owner of Buckley’s Auto Care in Wilmington, Delaware. “Make sure it has softer rollovers, not hard bristles, which are typically found in gas stations, less expensive car washes or self-serve situations,” he says. “Those brushes and bristles can scratch the lens, along with the paint.”

After washing your car, Castro suggests applying automotive wax with UV protection to the headlights as a barrier against the sun.

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Restoring damaged headlights and lenses

Dust and dirt from the road can also dull and scratch your headlight lenses, reducing their effectiveness. If your headlights seem cloudy or yellow, that means the UV coating has been compromised and the oxidation process has begun, says Castro. Many service centers offer lens restoration, which can help your headlights look and perform better.

First, the restorer will tape around the lens before sanding and cleaning it to remove dirt and oxidation. Once the original clear coat has been stripped off to expose the bare plastic, the lens is buffed and polished.

Shops can then apply wax for short-term durability, a ceramic coating for moderate durability or a paint protection film (PPF) for long-term durability, notes Castro. “A professional-grade clear coat or PPF will give you the best durability after restoring,” he says, adding that PPF installation can also be performed as a preventive service on new lights to guard against damage from rock chips.

Vehicle owners can expect to pay from $20 to $200 per fully restored lens, depending on the make and model of the car, the size of the lens, how much preparation is involved and where they live.

Inspect headlights often

Make a point of inspecting your headlights regularly. If you notice condensation, that means the watertight seal around the headlight is damaged or worn out, which can affect visibility at night, says Buckley. “Over time, stress due to heat or cold can cause the binding material or glue to separate from the base, and the seals can become contracted, allowing moisture to collect. Once moisture comes in, it’s very difficult to stop that,” he says.

Moisture will affect the lens, causing cloudiness, and when water gets behind the wiring harness and touches the hot bulb, it can cause an instant outage, he adds. “Then you have to get it replaced. I’ve seen those lenses cost between $100 to as much as $1,200 or $1,300 per side, and it’s often not covered by warranty.”

Be careful taking the DIY route

Car owners can restore headlights themselves by using specialized kits, but it’s a time-consuming process, notes Buckley. He warns against trying any homemade remedies circulating online, including using toothpaste and bug spray, which often do more harm than good. “Steer clear of unprofessional products or harsh chemical cleaners, which can melt and destroy a plastic lens,” he says.

Castro notes that most DIY kits only polish the lens in the early stages of oxidation. “Most consumer products cannot completely remove some factory coatings and don’t come with a durable UV coating to apply over the restored area, so results are usually temporary; it’s like applying furniture polish or wax over wood with failing varnish,” he says.

Tips for driving in the dark

• Turn on your headlights one hour before sunset and at least one hour after sunrise if you are driving.

• Keep headlights on when it’s cloudy or raining.

• Check headlights often to make sure they’re working.

• Clean your headlights regularly.

• Keep your windshield clean and clear to boost visibility.

• Dim your dashboard lights.

• Reduce your speed.

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