Bad headlights have been a problem for years, but they're getting better, IIHS says

Nathan Bomey

Dim, poorly designed, excessively bright or badly aimed headlights have been repeatedly cited as a significant safety concern of modern vehicles.

But automakers have made significant improvements on the headlights of dozens of vehicles over the past several years, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. So far for the 2021 model year, compared with the previous year, engineers improved the headlights on 17 IIHS-tested vehicles, including models from Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru and Volvo.

The advancements come after the IIHS raised concerns about poor headlights in recent years and pressured automakers to improve them by withholding its highest honors from vehicles that missed the mark.

"Automakers deserve credit for moving forward as quickly as they have," IIHS President David Harkey said. "It's really encouraging that automakers have stepped up to the plate."

The 2021 Hyundai Palisade is one of 17 vehicles that have improved their headlights to either "good" or "acceptable" since the 2020 model, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Beginning with the 2020 model year, the IIHS said it would no longer award its Top Safety Pick+ honors to vehicles that fail to achieve "good" or "acceptable" headlights for every version of the model.

The move was spurred by data showing that about half of deadly crashes on U.S. roads happen at nighttime, with more than a quarter taking place on unlit roads.

"Headlights are a critical piece of safety equipment that we often don’t think about," Harkey said.

IIHS testers have said that automakers were often guilty of installing headlights that were aimed at oncoming drivers or not aimed at the right place on the road, while others created too much glare or didn't light up the road enough. In some cases, designers compromised on headlight performance for the sake of a slick look, IIHS has said.

When the IIHS first began assessing headlight performance in 2016, only two of the 95 models it tested received a "good" rating. In 2020, 85 of 185 models the organization tested were sold with "good" headlights on at least one trim level.

There's still room for improvement. "Good" headlights were standard technology on only eight of the 2020 models, while 42 were sold only with "good" or "acceptable" headlights.

For the 2021 model year, 10 vehicles that previously had received Top Safety Pick honors were bumped up to Top Safety Pick+ "by eliminating or changing poor or marginal headlight packages," the group said.

Those were the Audi A7, Honda Accord, Hyundai Palisade, Mazda CX-30, Nissan Altima, Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, Volvo S60, Volvo XC40 and Volvo XC60. The Honda Odyssey went from no award to Top Safety Pick+ with multiple improvements, including the elimination of two poorly performing headlight options.

Several vehicles that had already earned the Top Safety Pick+ honors in 2020 – the Acura RDX, Subaru Forester, Subaru Legacy and Subaru Outback – now offer only "good" headlights, instead of "good" or "acceptable."

The IIHS is not done testing 2021 model-year vehicles, which automakers can submit for assessments throughout the year. So far, IIHS-tested vehicles that have improved their headlights from 2020 to 2021 (ratings according to available models) are:

  • Acura RDX (good)
  • Audi A7 (acceptable)
  • BMW 5-series (good)
  • Honda Accord (good or acceptable)
  • Honda Odyssey (acceptable)
  • Hyundai Palisade (good)
  • Mazda CX-30 (good)
  • Nissan Altima (acceptable)
  • Subaru Ascent (good)
  • Subaru Forester (good)
  • Subaru Legacy (good)
  • Subaru Outback (good)
  • Toyota Highlander (good or acceptable)
  • Volvo XC40 (good)
  • Volvo XC60 (acceptable)
  • Volvo XC90 (acceptable)

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.