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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Let there be light

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is evidently very receptive to regulations placing safety innovations in our automobiles.  Over the years, they’ve allowed and mandated such safety-conscious items as seat/lap belts, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control and even TPMS (tire pressure monitoring systems), among many others.

So why are they so slow in authorizing the use of the newest headlamp technology?  The folks at Toyota are recently wondering why too, and pressing the issue.

For years, we have driven at night with marginal lighting showing our way.  My father recalls incidents in the 1920s when the kids led a path with flashlights as the driver followed slowly behind them during foggy conditions.

Before halogen lights, we were overdriving (going faster than one can stop within their lit path) our old sealed-beams at around 50 mph.  Even today, standard halogen lights on low beam make stopping from 65 mph an iffy proposition if an object appears just outside of headlamp range.

HID (high intensity discharge) and LED (light emitting diode) lights are coming of age and their superior lighting is inarguable.  Certain luxury brands have experimented with these lights, but adoption seems slow.

The technology is available for lighting that would better illuminate our driving paths, but auto manufacturers via the NHTSA have not yet embraced it.  That situation has just impelled Toyota to petition the NHTSA to update its headlight regulations.

That’s because new headlight designs can not only properly light the stretch of roadway you are hurtling through at night, but use tiny cameras to detect other cars and automatically dim the portions of the high beam that would shine in other drivers’ eyes.

The feature, known as “adaptive high beam” is not NHTSA approved at this time.  Current regulation requires vehicles to have high beams and low beams, with no settings in between.  The law allows an automatic “eye” to make the switch from low to high, and was even recently revised to approve headlights that swivel for better visibility when negotiating turns.

But the adaptive high beams are different — they run on high when no one is near, and make infinite necessary changes in illumination and direction based on surrounding traffic.  Basically, a shade lowers partially over the beam just enough to shield the intensity of the light from the eyes of other drivers.  With current systems, many drivers stay on low beam to avoid the nuisance of constantly switching, so safety is at risk, especially for pedestrians.

In its petition, Toyota claims that based on NHTSA accident data, some lives of the 2334 pedestrians that die from being struck in the United States during dark driving conditions annually could be saved.

The agency continues to look at ways in which the federal lighting standard can provide better illumination for drivers,” the NHTSA said in a statement.  Hopefully, that is so, but for now, we wait.

Toyota has used the adaptive lamps in Europe, and believes that availability here would be a selling point for potential buyers.  Mercedes Benz, Audi and several other manufacturers are currently developing some version of adaptive headlights in anticipation of their regulatory allowance.

Manufacturers must sponsor testing to generate comparison to existing systems and demonstrate safety advantages.  Proof of adaptive system superiority in these regards is what will ultimately sway the NHTSA to modify its regulations.  A test fleet of adaptive-equipped vehicles out on the roadway would be an ideal test, but there’s the catch—they are not allowed on the road yet. 

SAE (society of automotive engineers) International has offered to help the NHTSA study the adaptive lights and determine their safety effectiveness.  Since the beginning of my driving, I’ve always noticed headlights’ inherent inadequacies.  The NHTSA should welcome any help from the manufacturers or SAE International in developing new and improved headlight regulations.

The current federal regulations for automotive lighting were initiated in 1968, and were last revised in 1999.  Given the new technology available on this front, coupled with the demonstrated inadequacy of current systems (especially on low beam), a change just might be in order, or actually overdue. 

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at