By on December 8, 2016

hyundai santa fe iihs crash test 2017

Things became grim the moment the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety added headlight performance to its testing regimen. An initial report on midsize cars came back with only a single vehicle receiving a good score, and IIHS wasn’t any kinder toward SUVs or pickup trucks. The general consensus seemed to be that most headlights are absolutely terrible at providing adequate visibility but great at blinding oncoming traffic.

Adding headlight effectiveness to the ratings criteria for the IIHS’s Top Safety Pick+ designation ended up cutting the previous year’s list practically in half. Down from 79, only 38 models received the safety plus appointment under the new measurements. 

“The field of contenders is smaller this year because so few vehicles have headlights that do their job well, but it’s not as small as we expected when we decided to raise the bar for the award,” IIHS President Adrian Lund said in a statement.

American automakers, which have dwindled from the list over the last few years, can blame the new headlight guidelines for this year’s particularly bad performance. Only three U.S. models earned the Top Safety Pick+ distinction: Buick’s Envision, Chevrolet’s Volt, and the Chrysler Pacifica.

Asia did much better. Toyota had nine winners and Honda was second with five. Subaru and Nissan both had three. Hyundai had a couple too, including the 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe seen being demolished in the above photo.

The new IIHS ratings criteria requires that vehicles must earn a “good” or “acceptable” rating on the headlight evaluations to merit a consideration for a Top Safety Pick+ award. Testing evaluates not only forward distance illumination but also curved road effectiveness and how much glare other drivers are subjected to.

With higher-tech crash prevention systems like brake-assist and collision detection becoming more common in vehicles, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety decided to take a careful look at headlights — something that wasn’t necessarily benefiting from, or improving with, those other advancements. “Some lights with the newer technology are not doing as good of a job as older headlights,” Lund said.

With around half of all fatal accidents occurring at night, you would hope that automakers would go the extra mile to make sure headlights are up to snuff. However, IIHS says that government standards for the basic safety equipment, established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, allows for large variations in illumination.

“We’ve raised the bar,” Lund told USA Today. “Automakers have not focused enough attention on whether or not headlamps are aimed such that they light up the road for the driver ahead of them.”

In addition to a positive headlight assessment, vehicles must receive good ratings on all IIHS crash tests and have “advanced” or “superior” collision avoidance systems to garner a Top Safety Pick+ award. A standard Top Safety Pick rating requires identical criteria with the exception of the headlight ratings.

[Image: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety]

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68 Comments on “Crummy Headlights Decimated the IIHS Top Safety Pick List...”

  • avatar
    heavy handle

    Surprised the three new Volvos (S/V/XC90) didn’t get TSP+, while the older S/V/XC60 did. They are not cheap cars, they should have better headlights.

  • avatar

    All three of the vehicles we are looking at as possible replacements for our Passat (Accord sedan, Pacifica, Outback) are TSP+. Yay…

  • avatar

    “The general consensus seemed to be that most headlights are absolutely terrible at providing adequate visibility but great at blinding oncoming traffic.”

    Truer words were never spoken. In recent years I’ve been more blinded by oncoming traffic than ever before. Maybe this new safety rating will help.

    • 0 avatar

      I think the problem is the wrong color temperature is being used. Engineers can show data with the new blue white headlights registering as bright, but for human eyes the color yields the perception of dim lighting while driving and there is disability glare created from approaching or following cars.

      My visibility is far better in my old warm Kelvin 2008 Highlander than my new cool Kelvin 2017 Acura RDX.

      If the engineers would test the response of drivers to different color temperatures, I feel they would be able to solve this problem.

  • avatar

    Not super concerned about this issue but would be nice to have pickup truck manufacturers design trucks that don’t blind car drivers, if that’s even possible.

    As an aside, this seems like the appropriate place to vent a little on the subject of headlights. You know those “Silverstar” and similar halogen replacement bulbs, you know…the ones that people install to try and look like they bought the higher trim with lighting package, the ones that sort of, but not really, look like HID lights and are easily identified on the road as cheap aftermarket accessories?

    People who install those stupid cheap looking headlight bulbs on their cars should be taken out and flogged. They do nothing but blind everyone on the road. Those bulbs should be outlawed as they are the most offensive hue of light on any given street across the nation. I know people buy them to try and grab attention, but I suspect the attention that they receive is generally “you are a douche”.

    Just sayin

    • 0 avatar

      The Silverstars are actually okay (although they don’t last, and often fry headlight wiring), but there are all kinds of horrible Chinese Bulbs you can get on Amazon/eBay advertised as “HID Look”, and bear absolutely no resemblance to the SAE specs for their respective base types. All they do is just stick a filament in a capsule and call it a day, while the specs have very specific requirements for the location and orientation of the light source. (This is also why HID retrofits usually don’t work.)

    • 0 avatar

      Halogen bulbs are fine. What you are seeing are HID kits.

    • 0 avatar

      Modifying headlights for attention is one thing.

      Modifying headlights and not realizing you are a safety hazard for everyone else is completely different. Improper light modification is my #1 pet peeve on the road.

      Aftermarket lights generally suck. There is a reason OE light assemblies cost so much. No, those $400/set bixenon assemblies for your BMW aren’t going to be better than the OE $900/light assembly.

      LED strip lights…LED light bars…HID bulbs in housings designed for halogen bulbs…I could go on.

      Because the driver cannot see their headlights, the driver will never know they are blinding everyone else. Out of sight, out of mind.

      • 0 avatar

        The IIHS doing something FOR motorists proves that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. (Usually IIHS is campaigning for speed cameras or lower speed limits). IIHS is loved by news shows because of the crash porn reels they send out, er, car safety ratings…so when IIHS speaks on other issues, they copy the press release and read it on air.

        I want to take a ball peen hammer to the modded lights I see. I live in an area with lots of deer and unlit roads. I get why you’d want better lights, and before I had factory HID in all the cars, I upgraded all my halogens, usually with e-codes or if not easily fixable, I added 55 watt driving lights…I had 100’s on one car but they were just too much in many places and I went back to the 55’s. I did the 9005/9006 bulb swap in one car-you get slightly brighter low beams but not obnoxiously.

        All of these lights were aimed and I used relays.

        HID bulbs in non HID lights. Silverstars. Badly aimed, to a one. Driver clueless. My retinas fried.

        Get The Hammer.

        They can all do it. My 03 BMW, 08 Acura and 10 Caddy HID lights are very good, but they are all the upgraded lights. The GM lights even swivel to follow the road. I thought it a gimmick but it really does help. The BMW lights have a sharp cutoff and swivel up and down, controlled by sensors on the suspension and they don’t blind anyone…brilliant, but requires two sensors on the suspension (don’t break them when you do shocks). The MDX lights don’t move. Of the three the MDX has the best lights overall, with HID low and Halogen highs. The BMW and Caddy have a single light with a shutter for high/low. The BMW lights are a whopping $1500 to replace if you break the whole thing…thanks bambi.

        Hey, maybe base headlights are like the base interior or the base stereo…designed and marketed to make you want the upgrade !

    • 0 avatar

      I call those vehicles “blue light specials”. Blue headlight bulbs from Walmart or a fake HID kit do not help anyone aside from the manufacturers of such garbage.

    • 0 avatar
      Gardiner Westbound

      High priced bulbs marketed under names like Nighthawk and SilverStar are a gimmick. They shine more brightly than standard halogen headlight bulbs but not farther down the road because distance is determined more by the size and shape of the lamp’s reflector or lens than by the bulb. And, they’re shortlived.

  • avatar

    But how long before the lenses become cloudy and hazy? My wife’s ’08 Volvo required replacements, none of those headlight restorer kits did a darn thing to clear them up. The lenses are $800 each! Just another reason why we will be replacing the Volvo soon.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve had good luck with the 3M headlight restoration kit, works well if you take your time with it.

      My mechanic recommended spraying the lights with clear coat afterward but I’ve never done that since I was getting rid of the last car that I polished the headlights on.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t blame for you getting rid of it since you can’t even figure out how to wetsand and buff.

      I suggest a new Prius.

    • 0 avatar

      I find a gentle wipe with the spray stuff you use to make plastic or tires look good works well. Do it after car washes as part of the process.

    • 0 avatar

      Rub some olive oil on them. Temporary, but it works.

    • 0 avatar

      The best headlight restoration for the car guy on a budget is wet sand paper (400, 800, 1000 grits) and Krylon UV stable clear spray paint.

      If you can pull the headlights out of the car to do the work, even better!

      Sand the lenses with 400 until they are uniformly colored and as white as possible. The yellowed bit is UV degraded clear plastic, that’s what you are sanding off. A foam sanding block will help you not dig grooves with your fingers.

      Move to 800 and 1000, keeping the paper wet. You should end up with an evenly translucent (in both color and opacity) lens that won’t pick up strings from a cloth.

      Dry the lights well and spray them with a decent UV resistant clear (Krylon from Walmart is good enough). Shoot a couple thin, but wet, coats. Let the lights dry and put them back in the car.

      If you are friendly with a body shop and have the time to work with them, take you sanded and masked lights to them and ask them to clear them with real paint the next time they are finishing up a car. Bodyshop-grade catalyzed paint will resist UV (and rock chips) far better than pretty much anything you can buy in a spray can.

  • avatar

    As a headlight freak (I have HID projectors retrofitted in my Civic and am working on a “quad” retrofit for it) I’m curious to see what their criteria is. It’s literally impossible to get decent distance AND not have some kind of glare towards oncoming traffic, even with projector grade optics. Any kind of elevation change = glare.

    The reason headlights didn’t used to be so glary was because they were awful. They didn’t put any light out on the road. Aside from those active LED headlights they have in Europe there’s no way to have both.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    My Audi’s headlights are superb. My 2015 Grand Cherokee’s headlights (factory HID Xenons)suck big time in comparison. The difference is light night and day.

    See what I did there?

  • avatar

    As someone with fading eyesight and who has always had night vision issues – this list is incredibly critical to me.

  • avatar

    on the subject of headlights though, god forbid the car manufacturers due something about the number of cars blindly driving around with no lights on because the driver sees their interior lit up by bright LEDs all the time. I know this subject has been beaten to death, but why are we talking about headlight performance when there are a huge chunk of people not even using them? I realize that some of the onus should be on the driver (if you’re driving down a dark highway in the middle of the night and can’t see any head light reflection, why aren’t you doing something about it?!), but in the city the amount of drivers that either don’t have their headlights on, or have their highbeams on (looking at almost all Honda Civic owners) is staggering. How hard is it to have a sensor to turn on the lights when it’s dark? A lot of cars have a sensor to turn on the interior lights when it’s dark, why not all of them? Hell, my Canadian spec Volvo doesn’t even let me turn off the lights at all.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll pile on by mentioning the drivers using daytime running lights at night (read: no tail lights). I see multiple examples of this every night in the summer, when I usually leave work around dusk.

      Many drivers don’t know how to use their car’s features, and permanently back lit instrument panels have not helped.

      • 0 avatar

        I just love it. We put our headlights on in the day because we think people are too stupid to see other vehicles in broad daylight (err, make that the front end of vehicles, the sides and and rear ends don’t need headlights to be seen in the daytime apparently), and then we have to automate the night lighting system to light up (that would be late afternoon in my 2000 Corolla’s case) because people are too stupid to realize they have DRL on their vehicles. One would think the dark dash lighting would clue them in.

        • 0 avatar

          Every car I’ve ever been in dims the interior lighting when you turn on the lights, having the gauges and screens blind you clues you in the lights aren’t on.

          Also agree with Civics having high beams on at all times, even during the day…

  • avatar

    I think the headlights in my 2015 Acura TLX are probably the best I’ve ever had. Unfortunately you have to put up with the world’s worst transmission (9 speed) and utterly disgraceful dealer service. Not exactly a good trade-off so I’m thankful it’s a company car albeit one with excellent headlights.

  • avatar

    Say what you will about the old sealed beams, but at least they had rudimentary optics, didn’t haze over, could actually be *aimed*, and were cheap and easy to replace.

    The headlights on my ’13 Tacoma are great (plenty bright enough with stock bulbs, and have a nice beam pattern with an actual cutoff), but the ones on my wife’s ’08 Sienna are garbage. She wanted to blamed it on haze, but only the tops were hazy (not the part the beam shines through), and even after polishing them, they’re still crap. Plus, they’re dim. I want to try a set of SilverStar bulbs, but I’ve heard bad things about their life expectancy.

    • 0 avatar

      The only good thing about old sealed beams was that you could easily replace them with a set of H4’s. The four square quads ? Even weak halogens win over those.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember when headlights were all consistent and uniform and strictly regulated. I remember my ’70 Chevy with the whiter halogen sealed beam headlights getting flashed at night by those who thought the low beams were the brights.
      Now it is a free for all. These days people with their high beams on don’t bother to dim them even when flashed. Ain’t freedom and deregulation wonderful?
      Some day when the USA gets a government that is somewhat to the left of Atilla the Hun, maybe we could consider European style headlight regulations.

  • avatar

    I have a set of 7″ round H4 Cibie’s on my classic car. Wonderful lights, nice sharp cutoff at the top, so all the light goes onto the road.

    Worst lights I experienced was a 1994 Lincoln Mark VIII. Plastic units and the heat from the bulb peeled off the silvering of the reflector. About as useful as parking lights. I couldn’t drive it after dark.

  • avatar
    Bob L

    Haven’t noticed so much in the car, but Toyotas and Hondas have been a terrible problem the last few years when overtaking my (slow)18 wheeler. Vertical cutoff?

  • avatar

    Nice headline. All headlights meet DOT requirements and none are “Crummy” when it comes to illumination, if properly aligned. If you don’t like your headlights, look at the alignment.

    IIHS using terms like “poor” for perfectly adequate headlights is nothing but a way to promote themselves.

    The only real problem is blinding. I got blinded today by a delivery truck who’s headlights were not only bright, but a good 4+ feet off the ground.

  • avatar

    Check out videos of BMW selective beam. Had a rental in Germany last year with this feature and the improvement above the already excellent BMW HID lamps was massive.

    Not sure if this test would catch it but my understanding is that this type of system is illegal in the USA because our codes still require a 2 level high/low lighting system only.

    I hope those rules change and we can get technology like this. Has to save lives. And makes driving at night so much more relaxing.

  • avatar

    Why we’re at it, can we have yellow turn signals and brake lights that don’t burn out (or alert the driver that they’re out), too?

  • avatar

    Most modern headlights are indeed terrible. Somewhere decades ago US regulators ditched their rigid approved sealed beams only requirement and seem to have pretty much let auto and truck makers do whatever they want with headlights. The results have been all over the place.

  • avatar

    SUVs are bad not only at blinding as oncoming traffic, but their headlights also sit at rear view mirror level of normal cars, blinding that driver when they inevitably tailgate (they can see further up the road? They feel invincible? Not sure why they always feel the need)

  • avatar

    That’s more than 10%, so that’s not decimated.

  • avatar

    The Honda Ridgeline is listed as a “large pickup truck”. Lol.

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    I think people just expect too much from standard low-beam headlights.

    They want right in front of the car illuminated all the way out to 300 feet. Most low beams aren’t going to illuminate the road right in front of the car, from what I’ve seen. Most I’ve seen don’t start until about 10 feet. Of course, high beams are designed to get out to 300 feet, and that seems to be what folks want in normal driving from their low beams. In normal city driving, low beams are fine. If low beams are projecting out past about 150 feet, then they are projecting too far, and probably blinding oncoming traffic.

    On my 2010 Mazda 6, I’ve found that my low beam in combination with my fog lights give me the prefect illumination on rural unlit two lane roads that head out to suburbia. I don’t use the foglights when in the city on well lit roads. I use high beams when I’m on a two lane/four lane country road and no one is around or I need to see past a curve.

  • avatar

    “With around half of all fatal accidents occurring at night, you would hope that automakers would go the extra mile to make sure headlights are up to snuff. However, IIHS says that government standards for the basic safety equipment, established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, allows for large variations in illumination.”

    With around half of all fatal accidents occurring in the day, you would hope the author of this article would recognize that this paragraph makes no sense.

  • avatar

    We have a 2014 Santa Fe, and while I don’t know how similar the lighting is to the facelifted 2017, it is one of the best illuminated cars I’ve ever been in. The only thing better is actually my S2000, which has some of the most universally praised headlights out there.

  • avatar

    Speaking of blinding headlights, the bubbas around my region get off on “leveling” their trucks (which make them look dumb as hell when there’s a load or heavy trailer out back) without correcting the aim of their headlights. So now I got a 2016+ Gm/Ford bro-dozer with HID/LED headlights either coming at me or is directly behind me melting mah eyeballs. Even worse when they have them 35″ tires and some type of lift. Auto-leveling headlights should be federally mandated.

  • avatar

    It’s nice to see the IIHS keep raising the bar on safety. But still it’s a shame that the NHTSA seems to be stuck and hasn’t mandated better safety requirements. At this point no manufacturer should even be allowed to sell a passenger vehicle without the level of crash safety necessary to earn an IIHS TSP award. Several manufacturers have demonstrated that it’s possible to build safe vehicles at a low price. So any manufacturer who still isn’t earning TSP awards across their entire model line is just doing shoddy, lazy engineering.

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