How good are your car headlights? Here’s how technology is making them safer

A street scene in Pasadena
Pedestrian death rates are soaring nationally. The insurance industry says better headlights would help.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

How good are your headlights? Probably not as good as you think.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on Thursday issued a list of the 23 safest 2020 passenger vehicles, based mainly on the institute’s crash worthiness tests.

Of those 23 vehicles, only six offer top-rated headlights as standard equipment, the IIHS said: the Genesis G70, the Honda Insight, the Hyundai Nexo, the Lexus NX, the Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid and the Tesla Model 3. The headlights on the other 17 models on the list are rated as “acceptable.”

“Few vehicles have headlights that do their job well,” according to the IIHS.

Manufacturers are increasingly replacing old-style halogen bulbs with LEDs, which provide more light per unit of energy. But that’s not enough, said David Harkey, president of the institute, which is the research and safety arm of the insurance industry.


Design of the lamp assembly and integration with the car body is key, as are improved manufacturing processes “to make sure the tolerances they need for aim of headlights is much tighter,” he said.

Safer headlights provide “the best balance of visibility and lack of excessive glare for oncoming vehicles,” the IIHS said in a news release. New headlight technologies available on higher-end cars include swiveling lamps that follow curves and high beams that turn on automatically on dark roads and turn off when an oncoming car is detected.

“People don’t use their high beams as often as they should,” Harkey said. About half of all traffic fatalities occur between dusk and dawn, he said.

It seems obvious that good headlights help reduce crashes and the deaths of drivers, passengers and pedestrians. But until recently, automakers have not made headlight quality a safety priority, according to the IIHS. “Achieving good or acceptable scores has been a challenge to the automakers,” Harkey said.

The IIHS began testing and publicly ranking headlights in 2016. According to Harkey, that goosed automakers into action. Besides the human carnage, crashes and deaths cost the insurance industry money through payouts and lawsuits.

While crash fatality numbers have flattened out at about 37,000 a year, pedestrian deaths are soaring. The Governors Highway Safety Association said that 6,227 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2018, the highest level since 1990. In 2019, 134 pedestrians and 19 bicyclists were killed in Los Angeles.


Car owners unhappy with headlight performance can buy LED modification kits online, but safety experts advise against it: because the lamps are not customized for a particular vehicle and its headlight housing, they could cast light so bright it blinds oncoming traffic. “There’s no reason consumers should have to resort to aftermarket products for headlights,” Harkey said.

The IIHS also includes pedestrian detection systems in its safety assessments, although that feature is rarely available as standard equipment.

Crashworthiness remains the key component in the group’s safety evaluations. For 2020, 64 vehicle models of 219 tested received an IIHS rating of Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick Plus. Good or acceptable headlights are required to achieve a Plus rating.

The Hyundai Motor Group — Hyundai, Kia, and Genesis — had the most models on the safety list, with 14 of the 64 models. Mazda models comprised five of the top 23.

No minivans or pickups made the list. IIHS said most pickups lack pedestrian front-crash warning as an option. No vehicles from Mitsubishi or from FCA, which includes the Fiat, Chrysler, Ram and Jeep brands, made the cut.

Caught in the headlights

The IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus list for the 2020 model year. All meet the most rigorous IIHS safety standards and come standard with headlights rated “good” or “acceptable.”

Honda Insight
Mazda 3 hatchback
Mazda 3 sedan
Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid

Mazda 6
Nissan Maxima
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Toyota Camry

Lexus ES
Mercedes-Benz C-class
Tesla Model 3

Audi A6
Genesis G70
Genesis G80

Mazda CX-3
Mazda CX-5
Subaru Forester

Acura RDX
Cadillac XT6
Hyundai Nexo
Lexus NX
Mercedes-Benz GLE-class