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Headlight Innovations and Bumper Improvements

Does the U.S. government regulate headlights?

There are federal regulations on headlights, but headlights that meet the regulations don't necessarily have similar on-road performance. Under the standard, a headlamp is placed on a test rig, and light intensity is measured at different angles relative to the center of the lamp. Measurements are taken for visibility and glare, but the standard permits a large range of intensities and the angles can be adjusted within a relatively large tolerance. In addition, once the headlights are put on a vehicle, the regulations allow a wide range of mounting heights and widths and don't say how they should be aimed. As a result, two vehicles could be equipped with the same headlights but have a large difference in the distances illuminated.

One clear requirement is the need for all vehicles to have separate low-beam and high-beam headlights. The requirement is intended to provide maximum visibility with high-beam headlights when drivers are on unlit roads without other traffic around and to provide sufficient low-beam visibility while limiting glare exposure when oncoming or leading vehicles are near.

What technological innovations have been made in vehicle lighting?

Between 1940 and the mid-1980s, almost every vehicle in the United States was sold with standardized sealed-beam glass headlamps. 3 Beginning in the 1970s, these were filled with halogen gas to improve performance. Since the mid-1980s, most vehicle models have had customized headlights with replaceable bulbs. Halogen bulbs now have competition from LED and high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps. These newer light sources are more efficient than halogen bulbs (and LEDs are much more efficient than HIDs), so they can produce more light with the same amount of energy. They also produce light with a more natural color than halogen bulbs.

Many of today's vehicles are available with curve-adaptive headlights. These headlights pivot in the direction of travel based on steering wheel movement and sometimes the vehicle's speed to illuminate the road ahead. They are intended to make it easier to see on dark, curved roads.

Another increasingly common feature is high beam assist. This technology uses a camera to automatically switch between high beams and low beams, depending on whether other vehicles are present. The driver still has the option to manually switch between low and high beams.

Headlights with an adaptive driving beam, not to be confused with curve-adaptive headlights, are similar to high beam assist. However, instead of switching the high beams on and off, they continuously adjust the high-beam pattern to create a shadow around other vehicles. In this way, adaptive driving beams offer high-beam visibility except for the segment of the beam that is blocked out to limit glare for oncoming or lead drivers.

Adaptive driving beams are currently prohibited in the United States because the regulations require separate high- and low-beam systems. The Society of Automotive Engineers plans to publish recommendations for test procedures, performance requirements, and design and installation guidelines for adaptive driving beams to facilitate the revision of federal safety standards to allow this technology.

Does these innovations improve safety?

Studies show that curve-adaptive headlights reduce crashes, though it can be hard to tease out how much of the benefit is from HID or LED lamps and how much is from curve adaptivity.

HLDI studied curve-adaptive headlights offered by Acura, Mazda, Mercedes and Volvo and found that claim rates generally fell. 4, 5, 6, 7 The effect was particularly consistent for claims under property damage liability coverage, which pays for damage to other vehicles and property, where rates fell as much as 9 percent.

The reduction of property damage liability claim rates was surprising, since only about 13 percent of police-reported crashes occur on dark roads and involve more than one vehicle. An even smaller percentage are multiple-vehicle, nighttime crashes occurring on a curve, where curve-adaptive headlights would be expected to have the most effect. It's possible that other differences between the curve-adaptive headlights and conventional ones besides steerability may have played a role in reducing crashes with other vehicles. Curve-adaptive headlights usually have LED or HID lamps, while fixed lights can be LED, HID or halogen.

In an experimental study with volunteers driving a vehicle with three different lighting systems, curve-adaptive high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights allowed drivers to spot a hard-to-see object on a dark, curvy road about one-third second earlier than with conventional fixed headlights. 8

High beam assist is not yet widespread enough to determine if it reduces crashes, but researchers from IIHS and the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that drivers in and around Ann Arbor, Mich., didn't use their high beams enough. 9 Only 18 percent of drivers who were isolated enough to make use of their high beams did so. High beam assist could improve this rate if drivers are simply forgetting to turn on their high beams, are unsure whether oncoming vehicles are far enough away to do so safely, or understate the effects of high beams on safety.


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