A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds that among 31 vehicles tested for car headlight performance, only one earned IIHS's top Good rating: the Toyota Prius V with LED lamps. Mirroring Consumer Reports test results, this first-ever car headlight ratings evaluation by IIHS shines light on how lamps are underperforming.

In fact, 19 vehicles received Poor or Marginal scores for their disappointing performance. The worst performer in the IIHS tests was the BMW 3 Series equipped with halogen headlamps.

If those results are surprising to you, they weren’t to us. Although we would agree that headlights have improved over the past decade, we still feel there is room for more advancement, especially for straight-ahead low-beam seeing distances that matter most. And the 3 Series also scored poorly in our tests.

Since 2004, Consumer Reports has evaluated car headlight performance as part of our comprehensive battery of tests. Our ratings have provided insight not only into which cars help you see better at night but also how the lighting industry is faring overall and which technologies offer better potential for seeing at night. (Learn more about how Consumer Reports tests cars.)

Although IIHS conducts its car headlight test a bit differently than we do, the concepts behind it are much the same. Both tests assess how far ahead the headlights illuminate, and both are conducted on dark nights. Further, both ratings evaluate both low and high beams, and they give the greatest emphasis to low- beam seeing distances, reflecting how lights are most often used.

IIHS notes that spending more money doesn’t necessarily buy improved visibility, as many of the Poor-rated headlights came on luxury vehicles. Our own ratings have found that while newer technologies such as high-intensity discharge (HID) and now LED headlights typically provide brighter and often more visibility to the sides of the road, they don’t necessarily provide added visibility straight ahead. As those higher-tech lights often come on high-end vehicles, our test findings seem to be in alignment.  

How IIHS' and Consumer Reports' Tests Differ

Some key differences in the testing methodologies may help explain why some vehicles may not rate similarly.

  • Lamp aim: For the IIHS tests, headlights are tested in an ‘as received’ condition, meaning that the vertical aim of the headlamps is not adjusted from how the car was set at the factory. We center the aim all headlights before our tests. A vehicle where we raise the lamps, for example, might receive better ratings in our tests than in IIHS’ because of that adjustment and vice versa if we were to lower the lamps. By not adjusting the lamp aim, IIHS is hoping to draw added attention to the fact that aim adjustment can help headlight performance and that the consumer shouldn’t necessarily be tasked with making those corrections.
  • Curve evaluation: The IIHS evaluation factors not only the straight-ahead seeing distance (as does ours) but also includes evaluation of seeing distance in a curve. Headlights with a wider beam pattern or adaptive (cornering) capability might do better in IIHS' curve tests, bumping up a score. Although we rate width of the light, it is not conducted while driving in a curve.
  • Extra credit: IIHS provides additional credit in its ratings for vehicles equipped with high-beam assist—a feature that automatically switches between low and high beams as conditions warrant. An accompanying study confirms the potential safety benefits of this feature: Results showed that even when people had the opportunity to go to high beams for added visibility, they did so only about 18 percent of the time. Although we don’t award points in our headlight ratings for high-beam assist at present, we also find this feature among our favorites for providing added safety.

In the end, because the IIHS ratings for headlights provide added information for consumers regarding which cars can help them see better and that drive improvements in headlight performance overall, we welcome them to the headlight testing party.

You'll find Consumer Reports' headlight ratings on car model pages.

Headlight Testing

Properly functioning headlights are a vital part of car safety. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports’ expert Jen Stockberger explains how CR puts them to the test.