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When and How to Upgrade Your Car’s Headlights for Improved Safety and Style

car headlightssource: micksgarage.com

Headlights are critical components in driving safety, and ensure the road ahead is sufficiently illuminated so drivers can adjust speeds and make timely steering corrections if needed. All countries regulate the use of headlights, and you can expect hefty fines or demerit points for faulty units and ones that aren’t used correctly. Canada has also gone to extensive lengths to heighten safety and awareness and mandated that all new vehicles now require headlights with an auto-on function once dusk sets. 

As with all car tech through the years, lights and headlights have gone through interesting changes, The goal is for better overall brightness, lights with wider and farther reach, ones that don’t blind oncoming traffic, and use as little power as possible. Here current versions of LEDs do a stellar job of ticking all boxes and are the types of lights fitted even in entry-level cars. LEDs have also brought about styling changes that due to their smaller size were impossible with older halogen or HID bulbs. The latter can be found in many cars still on Canadian streets and driveways, and while adequate for most driving scenarios, may be found wanting in others.

Basics of Headlights and How They’re (Correctly) Used

car headlights
source: idaoffice.org

Headlights come in two basic flavours, low and high beams, and each is used differently. Use low beams in urban settings with high traffic, and in built-up residential areas with good street lighting. Low beams should also be used when behind another vehicle, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and when meeting oncoming traffic. Turn on high beams when there is at least 200 feet or more from the vehicle ahead, or 500 feet from oncoming traffic. Fines can be issued for not turning off the headlight on time, and blinding other drivers as a result. 

With the new legislation, cars are now equipped with auto-on low beams for city driving, and most also have auto-high beams when detecting the absence of other vehicles. This also works with approaching traffic and high beams automatically transition to low beams when needed. 

Headlight Types 

car headlights
source: columbian.com

There’s quite an array of headlight types, so choosing the right ones for your car can be a bit intimidating. They differ in the housings and how they disperse light, the light source, and minor details like overall brightness, power usage, compatibility with your car’s electrics, and more. Lights will also need to meet set regulations and standards in terms of testing and use, such as SAE for North America and UNECE for Europe. Lastly, brands and pricing will be determining factors in auto car headlights for sale, so balance the budget and needs when looking for replacements.

Headlights by Design 

car headlights design
source: motortrend.com

Reflector Headlights

Housings are the parts that encase the bulbs, shielding them from external factors like heat, moisture and impact. There are two basic types. Reflector headlights are seen on older cars, with bulbs housed in a bowl-like case. Light in current versions is dispersed when hitting mirrors lining each side of the case and to the distance required. Older reflectors, or sealed lights used lenses in a fixed casing, so any burnt-out bulbs also meant replacing the whole unit. On the whole, reflector lights are cheap to buy, but fall short in terms of lighting performance, especially with low beam cut-off and low uniformity.  

Projector Lights

These became standard in the 1990s, and are seen in most new cars today. They work similarly to reflector lights, but besides mirrors also have a front projector lens to increase brightness and beam distances. Projected light is also more even, angled downward to avoid blinding, and isn’t limited to halogens as the main lighting source. Though more expensive than traditional reflector types, projector lights offer higher safety (for all traffic participants) and with the correct bulbs lights that are brighter and last longer. 

Lighting Sources – Halogens, HIDs and LEDs

Halogen bulbs are older types and work by heating tungsten filaments surrounded by an inert gas in a vacuum. They give off a yellowish hue, can get really hot and use quite a bit of power. Additionally, they can’t get as bright as newer options and don’t last long. On the plus side, they are cheap to replace and produce decent low beams. Different types are used for low and high beams. 

HIDs (High-Intensity Discharge) or Xenon bulbs were the bulbs to choose from a few years back. They produce light when an arc of electric power passes across a pair of electrodes that are trapped inside a glass tube. This glass tube is filled with xenon gas. HIDs are much brighter than halogens, shine a purple or bluish hue that is easier on the eyes, and use less power, so they are more forgiving in cars with a lot of electrics. They also have decent beam distances and uniformity. The only downsides are that they’re slow to turn on and warm up, and are more expensive. 

LEDs are what most carmakers use today. In essence, they are not bulbs, but light-emitting diodes that produce light when electrons are passed through the photon layer in the semiconductors or diodes. As such, there is virtually no heat involved, so these also tend to last the longest. The light output can be tailored to specific needs with the correct LED chips, meaning they can also get really bright and have exceptional dispersion. In addition, LEDs use much less power (about 70% less than halogens), are very compact, much easier on the eyes, and have instant on-and-off function. The downside is that they may not be compatible with your car’s ECU so you might get a flashing bulb in the dash. They are also a bit more expensive, but prices are coming down by the day.  

Choosing the Right Headlights

car headlights
source: autoexpress.co.uk

The popularity of LEDs has meant more freedom in designing differently shaped car headlights and a feature that distinguishes different cars and car brands. Buyers can go for OEM replacement lights that provide the same lighting as before, but there are also upgrades that are much brighter, have lower wattage, and can be fine-tuned in terms of colour temperatures to suit different driver tastes. All this is possible with the wide range of aftermarket LEDs. Almost all are easy to install and compatible with newer makes. 

Cars owners using halogen lights are restricted to H4 and H7 bulbs, with the first having a single filament for both high and low beams, and two H7 bulbs used separately for twin-bulb setups. There are also HID conversion kits for cars running older halogens and sold in varying colour temperatures. 

Lastly, look for headlights from renowned light manufacturers, decent brightness levels, quality build and parts, and lights that are compatible with your make and model. Prices vary but are generally affordable. 

By Anthony Hendriks

The life of the party, Anthony is always up for spending some time with family and friends, when not blogging of course! Ever since a child, his love for books of mystery, race cars and travelling keeps on growing so it's difficult for him to single out that one all-time favourite hobby. If there's one thing he hates, though, it's having pictures taken but you already guessed that from his choice of plant photo for the blog.