Are modern car headlights too bright?

Super-bright car headlights may help you see the road, but are they also blinding other drivers? We take a crash-course in automotive lighting.

Are modern car headlights too bright?

Super-bright car headlights may help you see the road, but are they also blinding oncoming drivers?

Light technology has evolved hugely over the past 20 to 30 years, and it’s fair to say the regulations have struggled to keep up.

To find out more, we visited the Lumileds factory in Germany for a crash-course in automotive lighting. It proved to be, ahem, an illuminating experience…

What makes headlights seem too bright?

Are modern car headlights too bright?

It’s well established that light from light-emitting diodes (LEDs) is generally more crisp and intense. The way they switch on is rapid and dramatic, given they don’t use filaments. Likewise, the cut-off is sharp and precise. So why might a regulated and homologated LED, or indeed a xenon light unit, dazzle us on the road? 

Dim and dimmer

Firstly, there’s auto-dimming technology: systems that drop the high-beam headlights when an oncoming car is detected. Our own experience is that many are a bit slow to respond. Likewise, some matrix light systems that split the gaze of the high beam aren’t as accurate as they should be.

Time to get used to it?

In the space of 30 years, we’ve gone from veritable candles in jam jars to virtual daylight. Some of us still make do with older cars with dull lights and, from that perspective, an LED-clad SUV barrelling round a corner can look dazzling. But a day will come when all cars on the road are furnished with this standard of lighting, or equivalent. We are in the middle of a period of acclimatisation.

Are modern car headlights too bright?

Vertically challenged

The height of an approaching vehicle will affect how much you are dazzled. Driving a Fiat 500, you might find a new Range Rover shines too bright in your rear-view mirror.

Rules are made to be broken?

While lights conform to present standards, more efficient LED technology may require a regulatory rethink. Given the UN Economic Commission for Europe is looking into how lighting regulations need to change, expect an update soon.

My visit to Germany also revealed that all lights are not born equal. I won’t name names, but some aesthetically pleasing full LED light units performed disappointingly on the rig – beaten by budget halogen bulbs. 

Reasons your lights could be illegal

Are modern car headlights too bright?

Any lights can be outside of legal operating parameters if not set up correctly, or if you aren’t using the right bulbs.

Lights are regulated very stringently, with beams only allowed to shine within specific areas in front of the car. This is to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers. It’s also why you need stick-on adjusters for when you drive abroad, given European countries use the other side of the road.

Dodgy aftermarket bulbs

The aftermarket bulb market is rife with poor quality products. The Lumileds lab had an incredible rig filled with car headlights and of the 12 there, three were from the same make and model of car, albeit equipped with different halogen bulbs.

These were Philips upgraded items, OEM fitment bulbs and aftermarket ‘eBay specials’. The Philips bulbs filled the specified area cleanly and crisply, the OEM bulbs worked to the specified limits but were somewhat dimmer, and the aftermarket items were patchy at best. 

Are modern car headlights too bright?

Poorly adjusted

A similar issue can be caused if lights aren’t correctly adjusted. Your car will fail an MOT if its xenon lights don’t self-adjust, while halogen lights are only required to have manual adjusters.

Car lighting: a brief history

Are modern car headlights too bright?

Halogen bulbs

The halogen bulb has been illuminating the road ahead for the better part of seven decades. Although they’ve gone through several iterations, the same basic formula of a metal filament inside a pressurised glass container remains widely used today.

Xenon bulbs

Xenon lighting is a bit fancier. If you wondered why some more upmarket cars started using deep-blue lights around the mid-1990s, that was when xenon was proliferating. The colour temperature is much higher because of the heat and energy used within the bulb. Xenon lights are much heavier and more expensive, given the need for ballasts and self-levelling. As a result, they’re now going out of fashion.

Are modern car headlights too bright?

LEDs

LEDs are the latest car lighting tech. They are much more efficient than halogen or xenon, produce crisper light and can be more precisely controlled with software. LED lighting in cars first appeared in the mid 2000s, when Audi introduced it on the R8 supercar.

Audi pushed the game on again in 2009 with the R8 V10 – the first car with full LED lighting. LEDs can be much brighter, certainly than halogens. Modern ‘matrix’ LED lights can be programmed to dim light where it’s not needed – e.g. to avoid dazzling an oncoming car.

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Ethan Jupp
I'm Content Editor at MR. Road trips music and movies are my vices. Perennially stuck between French hot hatches and Australian muscle cars.

6 COMMENTS

  1. You’re kidding, right? Your argument is that they will be less blinding when there are more of them on the roads? Brilliant

  2. Modern ultra-bright headlights are defiantly a distraction and should be regulated to achieve a balanced and safe light emission for the driver, other drivers in the vicinity, and animals, pedestrians, and obstacles. I get it, drivers want to see more, but it shouldn’t be at the additional hazard to other drivers who get blinded by modern brighter lights.

    Modern headlights need to be regulated. They should be angled properly as to not offend other drivers. They should be a warmer yellow to reduce blinding retina burns. There was a good reason during the halogen & xenon days that lights could only be so bright. With LED’s it’s like everyone is running around with high beams. It’s ridiculous.

    • Yes! I am so annoyed by these obnoxious headlights, You are absolutely correct, it is like most people have their high beams on. This especially true of the unbelievably inconsiderate ones that add extra led bars or center leds to their jacked up trucks.

  3. I started wearing yellow anti glare night driving glasses, but recently decided to tint my front windshield at 70%, that reduces to glare and blinding that these led headlights produce

  4. My background is in Physics, and I spent a good portion of my carrier working in optics. Auto/truck headlight measurements are in candela, which is a measurement of the projected light leaving the headlight. The light the eye receives depends on the size of the eye, and importantly, the size of the pupil. When driving at night, the pupil is fully open to allow your eye to receive as much light as possible. In addition, when well dark-adapted, the eye changes to its night vision mode: scotopic vision. This latter feature makes your eyes more sensitive to blue light. Both HID and LED headlights put out more energy in the blue wavelengths. This makes seeing the road better for the driver, but also makes the headlights more intense for drivers of oncoming cars.

    The 2nd problem has to do with imagining of the oncoming headlights on the retina. I’ll leave out the physics, but the smaller dimensions of HID and LED headlights means the eye can focus more of the incoming light on the retina. This is the same reason that powerful LED flashlights can do retinal damage, even though the projected light is within safety limits. Headlight regulations need to catch up with the realities of the type and size of the headlights, not just the projected intensity.

    Finally, here in Ontario, Canada, the maximum height of the headlights is 54 inches. While I haven’t cruised parking lots with a tape measure, I believe many pickup trucks and large SUVs, particularly 4X4 types with maximum-sized tires exceed this limit. There is no testing or enforcement of this regulation, nor a requirement for proper aiming of the lights.

    Are headlights too bright? In my opinion, yes. They are too blue, too small, and in some case, too high so as not to blind oncoming drivers, or when approaching from behind.

  5. Yes modern day car headlight bulbs are very dazzling, some dark roads, country roads, some motorways they give off a halo effect around the oncoming vehicle with these led lights and i can no longer look at them so i look away to protect my eyes and its like looking into fog and when there a car behind me it lights everything inside my cars cabin and bouncing continuly of all my 3 mirrors so i turn them away to stop this again to bright for my eyes to handle, you,ve beyond the balance of what eyes can handle safely and comfortably, whilist its a good idea to see more of the road, car makers have beyond this and use it for most part as a selling gimmick to certain extent. Even some new big trucks have them there far to bright way too bright, im sorry i don,t want to be blinded by over the top bright headlights.

    Also every vehicle will have then in the future is a big big big big mistake and will open up a big can of worms, it will madness and huge problems and boiling tempers go vial, im telling you the car makers will make a huge huge mistake, the old car bulbs were fine and softer on the eyes, LED,s are too much for my eyes to handle and i always end up looking away i don,t like them one bit and dangerous for oncoming drivers and you can loose site of the road at times thats dangerous because of the huge fog like halo glare these lights give off especailly at night its even worse …..

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