Study: Better Headlights = Fewer Crashes

By Sean Tucker 10/14/2021 8:35am

2022 Nissan PathfinderEach generation of cars is safer than the last. Automakers relentlessly look for new technologies that will make cars safer. Watchdog agencies relentlessly test and critique auto safety, pushing them to do better. It’s a virtuous cycle, and it saves lives.

Sometimes it results in high-tech solutions such as government-mandated stability control to help drivers recover from a loss of traction.

Sometimes, it results in startlingly simple ones. Like brighter headlights.

Better Headlights Reduce Crashes

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a car safety watchdog funded by insurance companies, added headlights to its battery of safety ratings six years ago. The institute rates headlights as Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor. Testers measure how well headlights illuminate the road at set distances in front of a car traveling 40 to 50 mph.

A new study shows that the tests have real-world results.

The IIHS looked at police reports from 44,000 single-vehicle crashes in the dark. It found that cars with headlights that earned a Good rating had 19 percent fewer crashes per mile than those with a Poor rating. An acceptable rating led to 15 percent fewer crashes. A Marginal rating meant 10 percent fewer crashes per mile.

Reductions were greater for certain types of crashes. “Good-rated headlights reduced the rate of crashes in which the driver was injured by 29 percent and the rates of tow-away crashes and pedestrian crashes by about a quarter each,” the IIHS explains.

Automakers Are Improving Headlights to Improve Their Scores

The tests are making a difference. In 2015, the first year the institute tested headlights, just 4 percent of cars earned a Good rating. This year, 29 percent have.

Beginning in 2020, the institute added headlight scores to the criteria for its safety awards. Vehicles are only eligible for the highest award – Top Safety Pick Plus – if they come equipped with headlights that earn Good or Acceptable scores at every trim level.

That move has caused many automakers to abandon the practice of making better headlights an added-cost option. As a result, IIHS says carmakers have “reduced the number of headlight systems available for each vehicle model by 17 percent. Now many automakers are equipping models with a single, good-rated headlight system as standard equipment.”

Top Awards More than Doubled

The number of Top Safety Pick Plus awards more than doubled this year as automakers made the adjustment.

On more than 200 models, automakers went so far as to make a mid-year design change adding better headlights to every trim level, the IIHS says.