Brighter headlamps could get you into hot trouble

Of all the things we love and hate about our vehicles, one topic is guaranteed to bring strong opinions from almost anyone you ask: headlamps. The views are pretty much divided into two camps; those that wish their vehicles’ headlamps were brighter and those that wish oncoming vehicles had dimmer lamps. The problem for the second group is pretty much found in the first group trying to brighten the lights on their daily rides.

Those looking for brighter lights thought the heavens themselves were shining down the highway when High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps came out in automotive applications in the 1990s. These lamps with their tell-tale bluish-white glare seemed to miraculously cut through the darkest night bringing anything on the road ahead to light. The problem is that these lights are usually only available on higher end vehicles. But that didn’t stem the tide of drivers looking to brighten their view or dazzle their friends with some HID power on their subcompacts or minivans. The automotive aftermarket answered the call and today you can find any number of suppliers with do-it-yourself kits ready to shine your ride. But, there’s almost always a but.

What many people fail to realize is that most headlamps aren’t designed to take the additional light output and heat generated by HID lamps. Today’s headlamps can be sorted into two types; reflective and projector style. The more common reflective lamps are easily recognized by the large mirror-like surface at the back of the lamp. With these lights, the output from the bulb is directed backward into the reflective dish-shaped rear surface where it is focused and redirected forward to illuminate the road ahead. Projector headlamps have tube-shaped glass units inside the lamp with a thick lens at the front (think of the coke-bottle glasses that cataract patients used to wear). In these lamps, the bulbs project their light forward where the lens focuses it into a very clear and sharp pattern with well-defined edges.

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When most HID conversion kits are installed on reflector style headlamps they simply wash the road ahead in a very broad and glaring pattern that causes great risks to oncoming drivers. One of the largest HID conversion kit retailers in Canada is HID Canada and they are quite clear about why HID conversion kits aren’t the answer for everyone. To quote one of their managing partners, “These (reflector style lamps) are horrible systems based on the fact that unless the light is aimed extremely low (and therefore ineffective), there will always be glare to the driver in front of you and on-coming traffic. This poses a real and direct safety risk to other drivers on the road and we absolutely cannot condone the use of an HID conversion kit in those types of light housings. Fortunately, many aftermarket projector based light housings are available to replace stock reflector types. If you would like assistance to source such a replacement, we can help, although we do not sell any.”

The retailer also supplies this caveat to all shoppers; “Every jurisdiction has its own rules and regulations governing the use of automotive lighting. HID lighting systems that are supplied with the vehicles from the factory are DOT approved. There are currently no HID conversion kits available from any source which is DOT approved if installed outside of the automotive factory. Moreover, in the United States, this is not street legal for use on public roads. In Canada, a similar but less defined clause applies. As a result, we officially endorse the kit for exhibition and off-road use only. We are not responsible for buyers who violate the terms of sale while in which they will assume all responsibilities for any unauthorized or unintended use other than exhibition or off-road use.”

So what’s a driver to do if he or she wants to improve their night vision? When it comes to retrofitting existing reflector style lamps, there are brighter bulbs available. Two years ago I did a comparison test of the top five replacement light bulbs and used an electronic photographer’s light meter to compare my vehicle’s original bulb strength against the replacements. The best of the bunch was GE’s Nighthawk Platinum. But even this top performer was less than 10% brighter than my vehicle’s original bulb.

If you’re continually finding difficulty with night driving, try turning your instrument panel’s lights down to their dimmest setting. Also completely turn off any large touch-screen displays. Remove any GPS or smartphone mounts from the windshield and keep them as low as possible on the dash and only have them turned on at night if you really need them. Adjust your side mirrors down to their lowest setting possible. If all this fails, maybe it’s time for a visit to the optometrist.

About Brian Turner