Headlight innovation comes at a price. With all the upgrades and forward-thinking momentum in the automotive lighting industry, one antagonist has managed to squeeze through the cracks: bad headlights.

Now, automakers are beginning to catch on, making marked improvements in headlight design for a range of vehicle models. However, it wasn’t an easy route here.

For years, the IIHS rated bad headlights one after another

For the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), the years leading up to now were particularly tough in headlight safety and development.

IIHS headlight ratings began in 2016, and the year was wrought with unprepared auto engineers. According to the IIHS, “only 2 of 95 headlight systems on 2016-model vehicles IIHS evaluated earned a good rating.”

In 2018, most headlights that achieved an IIHS rating of “good” were optional add ons or included in pricey packages. More often, base models earned “adequate” ratings.

Here’s what the IIHS had to say about the 2018 model year: 

“The best-available headlights on 32 of 165 models evaluated earn the highest rating of good, and the best-available headlights on 58 models earn the second-highest rating of acceptable. Thirty-two models have only marginal-rated headlights, while poor-rated headlights are the only ones available for 43 models.”

For any vehicle to receive a Top Safety Pick+ rating, the IIHS now requires headlights to achieve a “good” rating. The highly rated headlights must also be available across all trim levels, which means there’s no room for shorting base-level buyers. This is a great way to light the fire under automakers’ seats, and it’s making a real difference in the market.

How auto manufacturers are making poor headlights good again

For 2021, the IIHS said that 10 different vehicles went from Top Safety Pick to Top Safety Pick+ ratings “by eliminating or changing poor or marginal headlight packages.” This is a huge deal, and it shows how vehicle makers are changing up their strategy. Sometimes, more isn’t the best choice. 

If you can do a few things extremely well, you can make a major difference in your offerings (this is true for every industry, but it’s especially important in the automotive realm). Opposed to numerous subpar deliverables, this sounds like a smart move—and one that an increasing number of car manufacturers are opting for. 

Makes and models with improved headlights in 2021

There are plenty of models seeing improved IIHS headlight ratings for the 2021 model year. Of them, the most noteworthy might just be the Honda Odyssey, which became an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ after years of no safety award whatsoever. For a family-friendly minivan, this demarcation could drastically improve vehicle sales in the coming year.

The Honda Odyssey formerly offered two additional headlight options, but they performed poorly. The brand decided to eliminate these options, to their avail.

Other new vehicles, like the Subaru Forester, Legacy, and Outback, eliminated “acceptable” ratings and now only offer vehicles with “good” ratings thanks to improved headlights.

The Nissan Altima, BMW 5-series, and Audi A7 are just a few more that have upped their headlight game in the eyes of the IIHS.

With features like automatic high beams and curve-adapting headlights becoming increasingly commonplace, it seems like headlight technology is taking off. 

About half of all traffic-related deaths occur in the dark or during dawn and dusk hours. On-road illumination varies from vehicle to vehicle, and too-bright lights that cause excessive glare can be just as dangerous as lights that are too dim or ill-functioning.

But with these improvements, poor headlights may just be a thing of the past (fingers crossed, for all our sakes).

Rachel Curry
"Hey! My name's Rachel Curry and I'm a full-time writer who loves telling the world's stories as much as hanging with my dogs (and that's saying a lot). A University of Delaware graduate, I've traveled extensively, living everywhere from Ireland to Thailand. Bylines include Matador Network and Delaware Today."

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    1. My question is why are headlights not on the manufacturer’s radar. Why are they an after thought? We sell the cars on looks and other specs. We need to include the headlights in that as well.

      1. Totally agreed!

    2. I’m glad they are only issuing Top safety picks to the headlights available across all trim levels, no way fo the manufacturers to work around the problem.

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