Think your car’s headlights are bad?
One of the top complaints that drivers have about vehicles is their headlamps. And the camp is almost evenly divided into two groups – those who find their rides’ lamps almost useless at night and those who are blinded by the brightness of oncoming traffic.
It’s become enough of an issue that the venerable Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the U.S. recently started rating the effectiveness of new vehicle headlamps and now, in order to earn their Top Safety Pick+ rating, a vehicle has to merit an “acceptable” or “good” lamp rating. The IIHS has developed a system of sensors on its test track to put lamps through their paces, and they have found that only a small minority of vehicles tested to date have earned anything but marginal or poor scores.
The reasons for headlamp complaints fall into two basic categories – automakers’ love of advanced design and our own failing eyesight. As soon as car designers found out back in the 1970s that headlamps didn’t have to be plain circular or rectangular glass sealed-beams, it opened up a whole new world of appearance modifications. Some were for improved aerodynamics, but most were strictly cosmetic and few ever offered improved vision, save for the high intensity discharge (HID) and LED lamps of late. As diabetes is growing quickly to almost epidemic levels among our population, one of its main symptoms – degraded vision – has driven more and more car owners to seek out stronger headlamps.
If you’re having problems with your night-driving vision, there are a few free (or cheap) things you should try first, before heading out to the parts store or local service shop. First, try turning down the instrument panel lamps to the dimmest setting that still lets you read the speedometer. Next, adjust both door mirrors by tilting the glass as low as possible to let you still safely see traffic to the rear but to cut out the majority of headlamp glare. Also, check your headlamp lenses for clarity; especially in winter, you should always keep a soft cloth and some glass cleaner handy. With snow, ice, slush and salt spray from the roads, you may have to clean your headlights and taillights daily.
If your older ride has some hazing or fogging of the lamp lenses, there are several DIY kits you can buy to return headlights to the crystal clarity of new. But be warned, once you polish your lamps’ lenses with these kits once, they will haze over again much faster as the surface’s hardened outer layer has been removed. You can purchase and apply transparent, custom-cut films to avoid this.
You could also get brighter bulbs. One of the best is the General Electric Nighthawk, but even this optical performer will get you less than a 10 per cent improvement at best. Before swapping out any bulb, check the wattage rating of the original unit – usually printed at the base of the bulb – and compare it to a potential replacement. Installing a higher-wattage bulb may lead to wiring problems.
Be warned, though: Never install HID bulbs into headlight housings that weren’t originally designed to take them. These bulbs project their light forward instead of using the reflective dish at the back of the headlamp. This can create a dangerous, blinding and unfocused “wash” of light. In fact, Ontario recently outlawed HID lamps in vehicles that didn’t originally come with them due to the risk they pose to other drivers.
Also be sure to keep your fog lamps turned off unless it’s foggy. These handy bulbs will only project light a short distance ahead of the vehicle, and they can actually provide a visual distraction for longer-range vision.