The future of automobile technology keeps getting brighter, but headlights remain dim. USA TODAY
Poor headlights can cause safety issues.(Photo: Geoff Robins, AFP/Getty Images)
Cars now carry cameras, computers and warning signals to make travel safer. But one piece of outdated 20th-century technology poses a safety risk for drivers and pedestrians: Headlights.
About 2,500 pedestrians are killed at night every year crossing the road, in many cases because drivers can’t see them because their headlights don’t shine brightly enough, according to headlights expert Michael Flanagan at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded last year, that two-thirds of lighting packages available on 21 small SUV models including the Jeep Wrangler, the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and the Nissan Rogue deliver “poor” performance. Ten mid-size cars’ headlight systems were deemed as poor including the Buick Verano, Hyundai Sonata and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. The headlights of seven pickup truck were rated as poor including the Ford F-150, the GMC Canyon and the Toyota Tundra.
“Nobody who hits the deer thinks my headlights are bad,” said Matthew Brumbelow, senior research engineer and headlights expert at IIHS. “They don’t realize actually if you had better headlights you might have seen it in time and avoided the crash.”
Outdated federal rules have blocked automakers from introducing adaptive beam headlamps that automatically adjust to oncoming traffic to reduce glare and help drivers see better, even though the technology is legal and available in Europe and Japan. At the same time, sleek styling and manufacturing mistakes on currently available systems has led to poor performance on the road, including excessive glare and insufficient light on the pavement.
“Regulators have not done a lot to help this through inaction,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive engineering at national motor club AAA. “There’s technology available today that could potentially reduce some fatalities, and it would be simply a matter of regulation change to allow that in the U.S.”
Japanese automaker Toyota asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2013 to allow adaptive beam technology, which is already widely used in Europe and Japan, particularly in luxury vehicles. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents major automakers on Washington policy issues, backed the petition.But four years later, NHTSA hasn’t made a decision.
NHTSA — which like some other governmental agencies is operating without a permanent administrator or spokesperson under the Trump administration — in 2016 championed a goal of eliminating roadway deaths within three decades. The agency has acknowledged that incremental technological improvements could be just as important as revolutionary self-driving technology to reaching that objective.
“DOT and NHTSA welcome data and research, including that by IIHS, that can serve to encourage manufacturers to improve headlight performance beyond minimum federal safety standards,” NHTSA said in a statement in response to a request for comment on this story.
The agency did not address the status of Toyota’s petition.
Once NHTSA proposes new regulations it could take one to two additional years to implement any new standards. After that, it may take years for advanced lighting to become standard technology.
But the agency has been strapped for resources in enforcing safety rules and collaborating with automakers on self-driving vehicles, leaving open the possibility that other priorities take precedent.
“They’re really sincere people — I also think they’re incredibly overworked,” said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “They don’t have a lot of resources to put into headlights.”
Although headlights don’t fetch the same headlines as self-driving vehicles, improvements could help reverse the increasing tide of roadway deaths in the U.S. The number of pedestrians killed on U.S. roads in 2015 rose 9.5% to 5,376, although distracted driving is suspected as the key culprit for the uptick.
Still, low-beam headlights on 80% of vehicles on the road may not provide adequate stopping distance at speeds above 40 miles per hour on unlit roadways, according to a study by AAA and the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center.
In some cases, the poor performance may be because automakers have leaned toward looks, pushing stylized headlights that technically meet current standards.
But after IIHS recently published data exposing the poor performance of certain headlights, industry insiders contacted the group expressing concerns about the trend toward “whatever looks the coolest,” Brumbelow said.
“We had lighting engineers that told us they were glad we were doing us because internally in their companies there’s a war between the styling department and the safety department sometimes,” Brumbelow said. “The packaging of headlights has been getting smaller and smaller and smaller and more distinctive. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have good visibility at the same time, but it makes it much harder to accomplish and more expensive if you’re going to do both.”
One advancement the industry has adopted as an optional package for certain models is automatic high-low beam technology, which turns on high beams without driver intervention when appropriate.
That’s an important improvement because research shows that most drivers don’t realize high beams are much safer than low beams and should be used at all times except when another driver is approaching.
In fact, a U-M Transportation Research Institute study showed that drivers activated their high beams only 25% of the time when they should have been using them.
Some shortcomings in current headlights are easily fixable. Brumbelow said that headlights often aren’t affixed correctly at the factory, which leads to scattering light in the wrong places.
Improving currently available swivel lights would also help. IIHS and the Highway Loss Data Institute analyzed insurance claims data and found that cars with high-tech lights that swivel with the curvature of the road are involved in fewer accidents.
But several systems with the so-called curve-adaptive lights — such as the Cadillac ATS, Kia Optima and Mercedes-Benz C-Class — are rated as “poor.”
2016 model-year SUVs whose best available headlight package is “poor, according to IIHS:
2017 Kia Sportage
Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
2016 mid-size cars whose best available headlight package is “poor,” according to IIHS
Chevrolet Malibu Limited (fleet model)
2016 pickups whose best available headlight package is “poor” according to IIHS
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
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