Hank Investigates: Headlight Safety
With the help of the State Police Accident Reconstruction team, AAA and a master mechanic, we took all the major types of car headlights on the market (in older and brand new cars) and put fifteen cars to the test.
First we made sure all the lights were aimed and calibrated, then drove to a dark test track and set up a course. Massachusetts' regulations spell it out: car headlights must illuminate 115 feet. However, as our test results show, yours may not measure up. First we put a tire in the middle of the road.
"If you were an oncoming car you'd have to swerve to avoid this."
How close would the driver have to be to see it? Remember the state's standard says it must be at least 115 feet. The results surprised everyone: only one car passed! All other vehicles only reached visibility of the tire at 97, 91, 88, and 87 feet.
"And if that would have been a child you would have hit him?"
- State Trooper
So we tried it with kids. We put a trooper's son by the side of a dark test track to measure when you could see a child. This time, three out of five cars failed to meet the state's standard.
- State Trooper
"The test we have done tonight has clearly shown that all headlights are definitely not the same."
Watch out because that can be critical! When I played pedestrian and walked towards the middle of the road towards the headlights our test driver I was shocked.
- John Paul, AAA Representative
"I thought that all headlight were going to be fairly similar. And we found out there were some dramatic differences in headlight performance."
In three out of five cars, the headlights did not pick me up until I was much closer than the required 115 feet.
"Do you think people realize how poorly sometimes their headlights work?"
- State Trooper
"No. They definitely don't realize that."
- "We showed our results to registry officials."
"Are all clean working headlights bright enough?"
- Registry Official
"Yes. They should be."
However, the reality is they are not. In the mid-80's the Department of Transportation changed its one-size-fits-all standard headlight to allow carmakers to create different styles. Now, in several complaints sent to the DOT, car owners say headlights are too dim, don't illuminate and that they cannot see.
If you don't realize your lights aren't bright enough, we found there is no one who's going to tell you. The federal government certifies headlights before manufacturers can use them. But the fed's only test in a lab, not on a highway. Furthermore, your yearly state car inspection only checks for aim, not for brightness. So though most of our test cars failed the state's brightness regulations, they would have passed state inspection.
"You have a regulation. You just don't know if anyone's following it."
Now, after seeing our results, state officials say things could change.
- George Progin, Registry of Motor Vehicles
"All these cars are not in compliance with the mass regulations."
"But they would have all passed inspection."
- George Progin
"Then we should look into it."
"Massachusetts doesn't inspect headlights for brightness because cars are supposed to use federally approved headlights."
State officials tell me it would be extremely expensive to add brightness testing to the inspection procedure. So that leaves you on your own. Experts advise to make sure you headlights are clean. And if you're buying a car, you might want to test drive it at night.