Better Headlights May Lower Your Risk For Nighttime Crashes, New Study Finds

Safer nighttime driving and a reduction in dangerous crashes have been helped substantially by headlight improvements, advances spearheaded in large part by a safety ratings program.

Those are the highlights of a new study released earlier this month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry that developed the ratings program that linked good headlight ratings to lower crash rates. 

“Driving at night is three times as risky as driving during the day,” Matthew Brumbelow, the Insurance Institute’s senior research engineer who conducted the study, said in a statement. “This is the first study to document how much headlights that provide better illumination can help.”

The study examined how headlights with good, acceptable, marginal and poor Insurance Institute ratings affected crash rates and showed how improved vehicle headlights made a noticeable impact in preventing nighttime crashes. 

The institute said prior to establishing its headlight ratings program, it was difficult to determine how well different headlights lit up the road ahead, “but the outdated federal headlight standard, which has been in place since 1968, effectively branded them all equal.” Since 2016, the institute has evaluated and rated some 1,000 different headlight systems. 

The new analysis, based on police-reported crashes involving 187 vehicle models and about 44,000 single-vehicle crashes that happened in darkness, was controlled for a number of factors, including glare and differing road conditions. It found that vehicles with headlights that earned the institute’s top rating of “good” had a nighttime crash rate nearly 20 % lower than those that with poor-rated headlights, For vehicles with acceptable or marginal headlights, crash rates were about 15% and 10% lower than for those with poor ratings.

The evaluation also found that the reductions were greater for certain types of crashes. For example, good-rated headlights reduced the rate of crashes in which the driver was injured by 29% and the rates of tow-away crashes and pedestrian crashes by about 25% each compared with headlights with poor ratings. 

“Those reductions make clear that federal headlight regulations, which have not changed significantly since 1968, are not stringent enough,” the report noted. “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.”

By exposing those gaps, the Insurance Institute said, it has encouraged manufacturers to improve their headlights on more vehicles. Since the safety group’s program began, the proportion of headlights that earned a good rating has increased from 4% to 29%. As a result, quality headlights have become easier for customers to find.

“Our awards have been a huge motivator for automakers to improve their headlights,” Brumbelow added. “Now, with our new study, we have confirmation that these improvements are saving lives.”

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