Headlamps 101

HID HeadlightsLong winter nights mean we spend more time driving while using our headlamps. All headlamps are not created equal however, so some vehicles are safer to drive at night than others.

The gas-fired lamps and vacuum bulbs used when automobiles were first introduced offered little in the way of illumination.

Standardized seal beam headlamps were a huge leap forward in technology, but that technology was surpassed by halogen headlights in the eighties. Back then, North America lagged behind Europe in adopting better vehicle lighting, as Federal legislation mandated the use of standardized lights for all road-going vehicles.

Now, we have the latest technology on Canadian roads, Light Emitting Diode (LED) and laser headlights.

Using replaceable halogen bulbs in headlights enabled manufacturers to customize the headlight shape to each model of vehicle. Better looks, lower aerodynamic drag, and better light projection are the results. Headlamp reflector and lens design is now separated from the body design so the light can project more clearly at night.

Glare from oncoming vehicle lights is a common complaint among night time drivers. Government regulations, both Federal and Provincial, carefully control vehicle lighting when the vehicle is imported or manufactured, but are often not enforced after the vehicle is on the road.

Few drivers get their vehicle headlamps aimed, yet this is important for both the safety of oncoming drivers and your own night time vision. Headlamps that are pointed up into the air or down too far onto the road don't illuminate what you need to see. Heavy loads in the vehicle will cause the aiming to be wrong, so either reduce your load or get those headlights aimed with the load in place.

Another cause of glare is improper headlamp bulbs. To meet regulations, a bulb must conform to DOT or SAE standards and have a maximum watt output on low beam. Some of these bulbs cast a bluish white light. Don't confuse this with HID lighting, which also casts a bluish white light but with much more effective illumination. If the power output of the bulb is too high, then it can cause glare.

Most regulations limit low beam output to a maximum of 55 or 60 watts output but there are bulbs available, supposedly for off-road purposes that put out 75, 80 or even 100 watts power.

Even if you are using the correct power rating, quality control during bulb manufacturing may be poor. For the light to project in the correct position, the bulb filament must be in the centre of the focal point of the headlight reflector. Quality bulbs are almost always positioned correctly, but cheaper aftermarket bulbs may have the filament in the wrong place.

If in doubt, shine your headlamps against a building at night and try changing to different bulbs. You may be surprised at the difference in lighting quality.

Automatic headlight vertical aiming is a European requirement for HID systems and although not legislated, you will find this on many luxury vehicles here too. Turn on the light and during the few seconds it takes them to warm up, the lights dip and then return to a level position regardless of load in the vehicle.

Some vehicles have taken this even further and move the headlight beam sideways as the vehicle corners, so that visibility is improved where the vehicle is going. It does help dramatically.

Clean, correctly aimed headlights make a tremendous difference in night time vision. It could even save your life.

Here's an illuminating observation!

I can recall hitching a ride to Tofino back around 1972 - when it was still gravel west of Alberni - and getting a ride from a woman in a Citreon DS from California. That car was remarkable, and not just for its ride on the rough surface. The headlight beams would 'look into' the corners as the steering wheel was turned (this feature was later legislated against down there, due to pressure from US manufacturers who couldn't keep up with the technology). It also had automatic dipping of the high beams if there was an oncoming vehicle (this feature hadn't been figured out properly though, as it also responded to some reflective highway signs, just when you really wanted your brights to stay on).

About a year ago, driving a new Citreon in the UK, I discovered this same feature, as well as a dimmer on the low beams, which I'm not so sure about - if you need your headlights on to see where you're going, that's what you need I reckon. But maybe in built up areas with lots of streetlighting, headlights are superfluous.

So, this caught my eye:

Some vehicles have taken this even further and move the headlight beam sideways as the vehicle corners, so that visibility is improved where the vehicle is going. It does help dramatically.

Clean, correctly aimed headlights make a tremendous difference in night time vision. It could even save your life.

Thinking again about driving in the laneways of Somerset (they call them roads) in the pitch dark, bright, properly aimed lights are essential!

But it's not like we don't have demanding night time conditions in BC in many areas!

Are these features now available on vehicles sold in the US & Canada?

You are correct on the Tucker in 1948 but didn't one model of the Cord also have headlights that swung?

When it comes to headlights North America is always a few decades behind. I don't believe they have been legalised in North America yet but there are LED lights on many European models that turn off the filaments that would be blinding to other drivers. No need for high and low beam. Seen video's of them and look like they greatly improve your visibility at night.

Problem I see all the time is people loading up the vehicle and heading out for a trip. Follow all the suggestions on servicing etc. but the last thing that should be done prior to hitting the highway when the kids, dogs etc. are all in the vehicle is to stop and get the headlights aimed with the load in.

Competentdrivingbc mentioned Citroen. I installed a set of Cibie headlights in my own vehicle. They were the bulbs used in the Citroen. I had the misfortune to burn out a bulb while in California. Ended up going to the Citroen warehouse for the U.S. and Canada buying two bulbs and paying shipping costs to my home address. At that time sealed beam headlights were required by U.S. law. Technically it was against the law to sell the bulbs in the U.S. and you wouldn't believe how much begging I had to do to get those bulbs.

Not sure if they were legal in Canada or not but you could buy them in many auto parts stores and in the central interior the police were using them in their highway patrol cars.. The difference between sealed beams and the bulbs was impressive. I believe it was another ten years before the U.S. permitted moving away from sealed beams.