— New research shows better car headlight safety ratings are associated with reduced crashes when driving at night.
In 2016, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety created its headlight ratings program at a time when most researchers neglected how headlights relate to safety.
As of today, IIHS has rated about 1,000 different headlight systems in numerous models from various automakers.
According to researchers, federal headlight standards are beyond outdated and haven't changed much since 1968.
"The federal standard specifies minimum and maximum brightness levels for headlights at various angles. However, it focuses on the headlight itself, without considering how well it is aimed once it is installed on a particular vehicle or how newer technologies such as curve-adaptive headlights may change that orientation when the vehicle is moving." — IIHS
Driving at night carries three times more risk compared to daytime travel, and car headlights that earned "good" ratings had nearly 20% lower nighttime crash rates per mile compared to headlights rated "poor."
For vehicles with "acceptable" or "marginal" headlight ratings, crash rates are 15% and 10% lower than poor-rating headlights.
When the car headlight ratings program began, the rating results didn't affect the TOP SAFETY PICK and TOP SAFETY PICK+ awards. But in 2017, the Institute began requiring at least one "good" or "acceptable" headlight system be available for a vehicle to qualify for TOP SAFETY PICK+.
Then in 2019, that standard was adopted for the lower award and at least one good-rated option was required for the “plus” rating.
However, IIHS says in most cases the best headlights remained expensive add-ons that weren’t stocked by many dealers.
But in 2020 the Institute began requiring good or acceptable headlights across all trim levels for the TOP SAFETY PICK+ award and the availability of at least one good or acceptable headlight system for TOP SAFETY PICK.
Automakers are known to covet those top awards and went to work to improve their headlight systems and ratings.
IIHS says since 2016, the proportion of headlights earning a good rating increased from 4% to 29%, and the average low-beam illumination distance for all the headlights rose from less than 180 feet to more than 200 feet.
According to researchers, IIHS headlight ratings have caused automakers to make it more simple to choose headlight systems, and manufacturers have also been getting rid of poor headlight systems.
"Now many automakers are equipping models with a single, good-rated headlight system as standard equipment. Examples include the 2021 Acura RDX, BMW 5 series, Hyundai Palisade and Subaru Outback." — IIHS
Read how automakers have improved their headlights for 2020 and 2021 model years.