By on October 25, 2016

Photo by Scoo. (Photo by Scoo.) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Hoping to shed some light on the effectiveness of modern crash avoidance technology, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has spent much of this year evaluating the quality of headlights in late model vehicles.

Its research has shown that most midsize cars could use some serious refinement and small SUVs are downright abysmal in terms of road illumination. So, it may not shock you to hear that most pickup trucks did poorly in those same tests.

In fact, there was only a single model that received a good rating, and you probably don’t know anybody who drives one. 

IIHS began its own headlight research after finding government standards allow for massive variations in the levels of measurable illumination provided in testing. The Institute’s assessment, however, examines each vehicle on the same criteria based upon how far light is projected from a vehicle’s low beams and high beams as t14he vehicle travels straight and around curves. It also measures glare from low beams for oncoming traffic. Still, too much glare prevents even the furthest reaching headlight from receiving a high rating.

Of the 11 trucks and 23 possible headlight configurations tested, only the Honda Ridgeline made the grade. Tested in both RTL-E and Black trims, the IIHS found the Ridgeline’s lights to be inadequate only in a gradual left curve and acceptable everywhere else.

GMC’s Sierra possessed acceptable headlights on certain trims while other versions earned a marginal or poor rating.

The remaining trucks didn’t do so hot, with the Ford F-150 being one of the worst performers of the bunch. The Institute decided that neither the halogen or optional LEDs headlights offered on the F-150 provided adequate visibility. Visibility on curves was deemed exceptionally poor, as was low beam visibility on straightaways. The truck was additionally faulted with producing excessive glare for oncoming drivers.

Ford sold 83,468 F-Series trucks in North America last month while Honda sold 3,859 Ridglines.

The IIHS says it will be incorporating headlights into its new criteria for its “best in safety” award for 2017. To qualify, vehicles will need to have acceptable-rated headlights or better. That’s a shame for Ford, as the F-150 actually qualified as a Top Safety Pick for 2016.

[Image: Scoo/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)]

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52 Comments on “The Only Pickup With Good Headlight Visibility is the One You Didn’t Buy...”

  • avatar

    why is it so hard to get good headlights on cars?

    • 0 avatar
      Silent Ricochet

      Just guessing, but I don’t think the problem is that it’s difficult to get good headlights, but rather manufacturers hardly care (AKA aren’t pressed to do so).
      The regulations are rather lackadaisical: “government standards allow for massive variations in the levels of measurable illumination”. This leads me to believe that at least some of the manufacturers care more about styling of the headlights as opposed to how they perform on the road.

      I think this is a good thing that the IIHS is doing. I really don’t care for Manufacturers boasting that they’re IIHS top-safety picks and what not. Almost every car is safe to be in (without exploding airbags); much more so than the cars we were driving 10-15 years ago. What I do care about is being able to see where the hell I’m going. I reckon the faces of cars will start to look very different in a few years when automakers try to actually meet the IIHS standard for a “good headlight”.

      • 0 avatar
        heavy handle

        Good headlights cost more, especially directional headlights.

        In some cases (not pickups), aerodynamics lead to small, oddly-shaped lights that aren’t efficient.

        • 0 avatar

          In the case of pickups, the problem isn’t size so much as positioning. Those lights don’t need to be at chest height to a tall person because that automatically puts their direct beam through the rear windows of anything in front of them that’s not a truck itself. For some cars, those beams actually strike the roof of the car; that’s much too high.

    • 0 avatar

      The LED headlights on my last car (top-of-the-line V6 Honda Accord) were amazing. The low beams were the best I’ve ever seen and the high beams were like turning on the sun.

      Unfortunately my V8 Ford’s headlights are like candles in jam jars by comparison. But luckily I drive mostly during the day.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m no expert, but I think it’s because the government sets minimum guidelines, and it’s up to the automakers to determine how they will develop headlamps within those parameters. Up until the 80s, the federal government was way too strict, limiting headlamps to those ugly round or square sealed beam disposable units that were incongruent with the designs of most modern cars. They were lousy and outdated, but automakers were unable to move the technology forward. I suspect that the federal government is unlikely to step in because of the way they overstepped their authority previously. So perhaps it’ll be up to the IIHS or other non-government organizations to help determine the benchmarks automakers need to target.

    • 0 avatar


      And most consumers either don’t care or have never seen what good headlights are like.

    • 0 avatar

      In the old days of standardized headlights, you could get upgraded aftermarket stuff and replace what came with the car.

    • 0 avatar

      @seth1065: why is it so hard to get good headlights on cars?

      I call it bean-counter engineering at its finest.

      • 0 avatar

        Personally I’ll give good credit to the Jeep Renegade’s lighting (possibly excluding the projector beam lights.) I just drove down some Pennsylvania state and county roads last night with no visual issues even when leaving the fog lamps turned off.

  • avatar

    Does this one also include “bad aim from factory”, like the previous ones?

    It’s not unimportant, but it’d be nice to know how remedially the various models are with a proper light alignment.

    And I’d prefer separate low and high ratings; they’re pretty different use cases.

    • 0 avatar

      I sit pretty low in my MINI – and it seems that a large number of SUVs/CUVS/and trucks have lights that are just blinding when I drive toward them at night.

      My own car has halogens – fairly crappy reflecting ones – that only seem to throw a beam some twenty-five feet in front of me with very little to the left or right. Not so bad in a well-lit area, but in my neighborhood, which has very little in terms of streetlights, it’s dangerous. I’ll flash my brights temporarily on so I can get a better picture of what’s going on.

      My wife’s car – with Xenons – are much, much better – in terms of distance the light is thrown and seeing off to the side of the beam.

      Some of this could be my middle-aged eyes and a career of staring at computer screens all day, but I don’t like to drive at night like I used to.

      • 0 avatar
        01 Deville

        Same was the case for my V70 until I installed a $20 HID kit from ebay which fixed visibility issues for me. I also don’t get flashed so hopefully am not blinding others.

        • 0 avatar

          Xenon bulbs in a halogen head lamp give the illusion of better visibility as they tend to light the are directly in front of the car which is least useful. You want distance vision and side of the road illumination. HIDs in halogen lenses always perform worse, and they’re not legal, as they have the wrong beam cut off and glare other drivers. So not only did you reduce your visibility you reduced everyone else’s in oncoming traffic

          Read all about why this is a bad idea from a lighting engineer

      • 0 avatar

        Not to mention every 3rd “appliance” car (i.e. clueless driver) or boy racer car here in NorCal Bay Area drives with highbeams on at night. And they’re clueless about it. Getting an auto-dimming rearview has helped. Before that, it was a nightmare in my wagon. That’s aside from the badly-aimed headlights, or those from the lifted trucks.

        My wife (from here) admitted she didn’t realize she was driving with her high beams on in her first car for several months until someone pointed it out to her. It just seems like no one talks about it here.

        Growing up in Canada, we QUICKLY learned about high beams, and when to use them, etc..

        • 0 avatar

          I live outside of town, and every night I meet someone with their high beams on. Flashing my brights gets no reaction from these people. Do they not teach about the use of high beams in drivers ed anymore?

      • 0 avatar
        Brett Woods

        You’re not the only one. I just got out of a Prius V after a big dark drive and also was cursing the poor light distance and as you say, the narrow width of the beams. Constantly using the high beams in traffic situations and they also did not illuminate well laterally. I was just thinking how I wished the lows were ¾ of what the highs were and wider field. LED Projectors or maybe also little halogen reflectors in there, I don’t know. I found low beam barely adequate for even my slow driving.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I work with an odd cluster of people who own the old Ridgeline (3 dudes) but the closest I get to the new one is someone at the building across the parking lot bought one recently.
    I find its design jarring. I’m sure I’ll get used to it.

    I just re-did my GTO’s headlights yesterday after clear coating them last week. Hopefully this will keep them from turning cloudy for a while. And hopefully next time I get an inspection I’ll have them re-aimed because driving this morning for the first time with crystal clear headlights was a let down. It looks like they point right down at the road 15′ in front of me.

  • avatar

    The high end packages on trucks give you much better lights. The silverado with led package is wicked! The regular lt versions are garbage. Look like garbage with yellow and blue lights. F150 led packages aren’t nearly as bright. Very disapointing for such a high price.

  • avatar
    Car Guy

    So do these “poor” headlights actually translate into real world fatal accidents or is it just a case of the insurance companies inventing a test to a narrow performance spec and having a “gotcha” moment? I’m guessing the latter.

    Be that as it may, the US lighting standards are antiquated and would easily be improved if they simply allowed the EU adaptive systems.

    • 0 avatar

      “So do these “poor” headlights actually translate into real world fatal accidents or is it just a case of the insurance companies inventing a test to a narrow performance spec and having a “gotcha” moment?”

      From what I’ve been reading in commentary online, neither is true. There have been a number of complaints that pickups especially simply don’t seem to put enough light down on the road and as people age, they seem ever more prone to developing ‘night blindness’, where the glare from oncoming cars blinds them to what little illumination their own headlamps are providing. Adding to this the high position of headlamps on many pickup trucks (well above the belt line of most sedans) and projector-beam lamps especially become blinding obstacles potentially causing the blinded driver to run off the road or cross the center line. In other words, it’s time for a new illumination technology that can make the road more visible no matter what the environmental conditions may be while also avoiding the glare to oncoming vehicles. Either UV or Infrared lamps with respective HUD displays and only marker lamps in the visible light spectrum (plus brake lamps/turn signals) could improve driving safety significantly at night.

      • 0 avatar

        We’re now approaching the third generation of adaptive headlamps–the first generation were reactive and swiveled with the steering wheel and front wheels, which did nothing to see into curves and reduce glare. The second generation is active in Europe now, which combines forward camera data with active masking to nearly eliminate disability glare (as opposed to discomfort glare, which is annoying but not dangerous). The Euro Mondeo MkV uses these. The third generation will combine these technologies with predictive aiming that uses GPS and speed data along with machine vision to position the headlamps. It is gradually getting better.

      • 0 avatar

        The blue white light being pushed now is actually a problem. The blue component triggers night blindness much more so than yellow light, and provides less visual contrast (why skiers use yellow tinted lenses.

        But ‘daylight’ color sells.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      It probably does relate to accidents. I used to have two cars, one with decent lights and one with poor lights (according to the previous rounds of IIHS tests), and I really didn’t care to use the second one at night outside of the city. I just couldn’t see far enough to react, even with high beams on. That’s part of the reason I traded it in on a car that tested well on the IIHS site, both in terms of lights and of crash safety.

    • 0 avatar

      I was waiting for someone to mention this. The U.S. has a 75-year history of being way behind the curve in headlamp effectiveness as a result of having different (and inferior) headlamp laws from the rest of the world. We had awful incandescent sealed beams when everyone else had halogens. We had halogen when Europe was getting HID xenons. When some European cars were getting adaptive headlights that swivel with the steering wheel back in the 1960s, we had to wait until the 2000s before they were legal here. And today we still must have separate low and high beams while Europe is getting matrix LED lights that selectively dim only the area(s) of the beam that oncoming cars occupy, using laser, camera, optical sensor, and GPS technology to know about oncoming cars and roads, yielding brighter, broader light for drivers and less glare for those in oncoming cars. Not only is it not worth it for manufacturers to design their best lighting when it can only be used in one country, but often it would be illegal if they did.

      The U.S. needs to stop going its own way on everything and join the 62 countries that have signed onto the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (, as most of Europe, Japan, Australia, and many other countries already have.

  • avatar

    I expect we’ll see headlamps moving back down to just above the bumper again, rather than sitting right up under the lip of the hood. With the taller noses on so many SUVs and trucks, this means there will be less glare in the eyes of cars in front of the vehicle, though will also make them much more prone to ‘bounce’ or ‘flash’ in approaching drivers’ eyes as the vehicle crests a rise or hits a bump. Projector-beam headlamps are notorious for flashing oncoming vehicles this way, though I’ve found I actually prefer the brighter beam in low-beam mode.

  • avatar

    Bought some replacement light modules on Amazon (Taiwan mfg) for my old GMC Sonoma which had lenses clouded beyond repair. Look quite nice, but the optics are scary. If the low beams are aimed correctly, the high beams are pointing high and outside.

  • avatar

    Worse than crap stock headlights on a pickup truck and garbage drop in HID kits on a lifted truck. They don’t illuminate the road at all, but they sure do blind anyone oncoming or unlucky enough to be in front of you.

    HID kits in reflectors seems to be a popular thing around Vancouver anyways, it’s just made a lot worse when you raise those lights up to eye level.

    If it takes the IIHS shaming/dropping their safety scores so that headlights are better designed, then so be it. Even bone stock pickups can be annoying, and as an infrequent driver of one, they mostly suck at illumination (At least the work grade Chevy’s and Dodges do…)

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    In a quick test drive of the new F-150 with the LED package, I thought the lights were pretty good. The headlights on my 2015 GMC Sierra SLT, not so good. In fact, terrible. I usually drive with the road or fog lamps on in conjunction with the low beams. At least they give me more side visibility. The “high” beams barely register any further distance. High beam uses the same bulb, just lifts and interior shutter. Nothing like my old Z3, sadly.

  • avatar

    What’s worse? Lousy headlights or clueless people who can’t tell they’re driving in “Batman stealth” mode (lights off)?

    • 0 avatar

      I see this much more often than I used to; one reason is it’s an unintended consequence of DRL’s. It seems like every time I drive after dark, I will encounter at least one car with no taillights on, only to pass it and see that the headlights are in the dim DRL mode.

      Another thing I would bet drives this now is vacuum-fluorescent (or just strongly back-lit) instrument displays – they’re always lit up like a video game, so there’s no visual cue from inside the car that your lights are off. If driving in a well-lit area, it’s very easy for a driver to forget to turn on the lights.

  • avatar

    One more dubious report from another nanny organization. [yawn]

  • avatar

    Between telling me what I’ll buy in the last article and telling me who I know in this one TTAC is making a lot of assumptions today.

  • avatar

    I drove my daughter-in-law’s 08 Saturn Outlook SUV the other night. I thought only the parking lights were on as the headlights were so dim. High beams were fine but the low beam “projector” headlights were awful. The outer lens on these are a bit cloudy but not to the extreme. Do these bulbs dim with age, or maybe there is a grounding issue? She is totally unsafe driving this thing at night.

    • 0 avatar

      They certainly do dim with age. Our family tows trailers with mostly late 90s trucks and I recommend the Sylvania Silverstone bulbs from the auto parts store. We noticed a difference and the increased visibility along rural 4 lane highways especially.

      As always, polish the lenses (every little bit helps), and of course, your mileage may vary…

      For example, dim headlights can also be cause by things like a slowly failing alternator or resistance in the headlight circuit. When you pick up those silverstar bulbs, have the parts store guy grab his equipment and check her Saturn’s alternator, battery, any check engine lights, etc. It will be good to know the current “vital signs”

      And don’t forget to check/correct her tire pressure. You’ll sleep well knowing she’s all set!

  • avatar

    It’s too bad that the Honda Ridgeline RTL-E and BE (Black Edition) are the only two models out of seven offered to have the best headlights. I did look at the Ridgeline when it first came out but was shocked at how shallow the bed was among other things. I would consider a Ridgeline but to get the sunroof, which I want, you can only get it on the top two trim levels. The Canadian Ridgeline has only 5 models but a sunroof is available on all but the base model.

    I have a 2014 F-150 King Ranch w/HID headlights and they seem capable and provide a very bright/distant beam. I like the truck very much but piloting it can be a chore depending on the circumstances. The Ridgeline is the ‘right size’ cabin wise but the feature(s) I want only being available on the top trims have me waiting for what the next Frontier (Navara?) will offer.

  • avatar

    There is not much understanding amongst consumers as to what makes for good illumination, and which human factors are at play in assessing adequate night vision. It doesn’t help that various aftermarketers toss around terms like “lumens” and “watts” as if these have any bearing on effective illuminance and luminance. Mesopic vision characteristics, which span the difference between photopic (daylight vision) and scotopic (very low light night vision), is very, very dependent on good lighting design. Bad reflectors or refractors that dump too much light on the road right in front of your vehicle hinder night vision. Having worked in nighttime vision and visibility research, I’d be very interested to see IIHS’s methodology. I’d be willing to bet it’s highly subjective, as there are very few institutions with the technical capability to quantify a study like this.

    • 0 avatar

      IIHS has some good folks. A few years ago I was contacted by one of their human factors scientists concerning the minimal resolution of backup cameras. That was a bit out of my area, so I hooked them up some scientists at the US Army’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD-RDECOM), as they have plenty of related experience.

      BTW: here is the methodology they used for the headlights:

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks. Helpful but not terribly enlightening, if you’ll pardon the pun.

        A five-lux threshold is ridiculous. That’s at the upper end of mesopic vision — pretty much the lower end of photopic vision, in fact. This just does not reflect real-world night driving conditions. And it was chosen because it was “easily measured,” meaning by easily obtainable but not particularly accurate instruments. A *much* more realistic threshold would be from 1.5 to 3.0 lux. No consideration seems to have been given to the human eye’s sensitivity to different wavelengths and color temperatures, given roughly similar radiance. And no discussion of glare thresholds, especially the transition between discomfort and disability glare. Granted, that’s extremely variable with age, which is why we always used test subjects from two age groups, 18-30 and 55-up. There is a pretty linear relationship between better visibility and increasing levels of glare that no standard-design headlamp will ever be able to overcome. Second- and third-generation adaptive lighting is the answer here, but the complexity (and thus expense) is considerable and initially reliability will be suspect.

        I could go on, but I see serious flaws in the methodology here. No wonder so few cars meet their standards.

  • avatar

    My 1976 Chrysler with its incandescent sealed beams are more than adequate.
    My 2016 MKS with its gawdknowswhat illumination projectors are the same.
    Just a different color…

  • avatar

    All these years on from the exploding-tire Explorer, and Ford trucks STILL have headlights that dangerously blind other drivers yet hardly illuminate the road?

    GM is no better; they’re the subject of lawsuits for useless truck headlights.

    Dear automakers: Headlights are the most basic safety equipment. Getting them wrong kills people. Get your act together.

  • avatar

    I had a 2012 F-150 Platinum with halogen reflectors and the night time visibility was terrible, even with the fog lights on. I sold it this year and that was one of the reasons why, aside from moving to Hawaii for work.

    My 2010 Taurus SHO with factory HID projector headlamps are also terrible. If I turn on the high beams, it’s at least tolerable.

    The best headlamps in any car I’ve owned is my current XC90 with LEDs and a former car, my 2002 Jaguar X-Type Sport with HID projectors.

  • avatar

    What good are headlights when they’re off? With instrument clusters that are illuminated without the outside lights being on, I see a person every day driving with their exterior lights off. Perhaps it’s because I live in a city, but I’ve seen many cars go by me on the freeway when it’s dark out without their lights on. Perhaps they don’t realize it, but I can’t believe that they don’t notice.

  • avatar

    “In fact, there was only a single model that received a good rating, and you probably don’t know anybody who drives one.”

    I test drove the 2017 Ridgeline the other day, and really liked it. It is the only truck I’ve ever driven that could both replace the Ford Ranger I used to have, while fixing its problems.

    (Other trucks I’ve driven (including the F-150 that I half-owned for a couple of years) come with enough tradeoffs that they couldn’t really replace my old Ranger.)

    My impression of the Ridgeline is that it’s the ideal vehicle for the man who can’t decide if he wants a minivan or a pickup truck. Which is me some days.

    Also, it’s a bummer that it’s not electric. My minivan is hitting the point where it’s no longer worth maintaining, so maybe I’ll buy a Ridgeline for the “big vehicle” spot in my driveway, and replace it if/when the Tesla pickup becomes available.

    Seriously, if you miss your small truck from decades past, or if you wish your minivan had a bed and a 5000lb tow rating, then the Ridgeline is worth a look.

  • avatar

    I ended up buying 65 watt H7 Osram bulbs for my Sportwagen because the low beams were so dim. They do help and haven’t melted my wiring in the 3 years I’ve had them. The nice thing about VWs is that they have a light sensor in the cluster which helps you to remember to turn headlights on if it gets dark out and you’re still running with DRLs only.

    My wife’s 2014 Jetta sedan has pretty decent factory lights, no 65 watt bulbs required for it.

    My next car will have Xenons, after seeing how they perform in my brother’s Mazda 5.

  • avatar

    This is an interesting post. So if I were to upgrade my headlights, what would be the recommendations?

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