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Replacement Headlights: A Choice and a Warning

Lighting & Lamps  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

It’s only natural that consumers will see the hubbub about new cars equipped with super-powerful LED, HID, and Xenon lights—and want to get in on the action. The new lights are bright, energy-efficient, and inexpensive. And the swap is easy. Just pull out one bulb and replace it with another. But not so fast.

Are Aftermarket LED Headlights Legal?

LED car lights are widely available, including on eBay. However, regulators say that aftermarket LED lights don’t necessarily meet federal safety standards. And enforcement is lax. Moreover, there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the new brighter lights are a problem for some people who encounter them at night—especially older drivers.

According to the British Journal of Ophthalmology, the glare problem gets worse as headlights get brighter. Lighting consultant Daniel Stern says:

“Aftermarket LEDs are not capable of producing the right amount of light, nor can they produce it in the right pattern for the lamp’s optics to work.”

The journal says HIDs also have issues:

“HID headlights can dazzle viewers on two-lane highways, making it more difficult for approaching drivers to identify pedestrians, road hazards, and curves in the road.”

Halogen and LED Lights: Omni-Directional versus Focused Beams

Your existing halogen headlights use reflectors that were designed to work with omni-directional halogen light filaments. LEDs emit very different—and much more directional—light patterns.

Here’s what you need to know about upgrading to LED:

  • An LED light source is radically different from a filament light.
  • LED bulbs will not work well even if placed in the same position as the original bulb.
  • If you install them and switch them on, you’re going to see brighter lights and probably assume everything is fine.
  • However, HIDs came out in 2004, and a then-activist National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) ordered 24 companies to cancel or recall their bulbs for violating regulations that control brightness.

Given the potential hazard, you should study warnings before making the swap. For some LED bulbs, the packaging indicates that the lights are “sold for off-road use only.” We especially recommend avoiding LEDs from unproven, low-cost providers.

What to Do About LED, Xenon, and HID Lights?

In most cases, you’re best off simply replacing your halogen bulbs with others of the same type. Again, Daniel Stern:

“Halogen headlamps must use halogen bulbs, or they don’t, can’t, won’t work effectively, safely or legally.”

Your next new car will very likely have safe LEDs as standard equipment, so be patient.

Another strategy is to start small, with LED signal lights that are whole units. They’re available on eBay for a wide range of specific vehicles.

If you’re still determined to install LED replacement bulbs to increase the brightness, make sure they’re adjusted properly. The “bulb” part of the light is a flat plane, and the two blades should be pointing to 3 pm and 9 pm. There are adjusters on the bulb, some of which use Allen wrenches and others Phillips head screws.

If you decide to replace your burned-out bulbs with original-type halogens, eBay has an extensive selection of halogen auto lighting. And see our guide to all types of new automotive lighting.

About the Author

Jim Motavalli is a contributor to the New York Times, Barron's, NPR’s Car Talk, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, among others. He is the author of nine books, including two—Forward Drive and High Voltage—about electric cars and why they’re important. He is a longtime radio host on WPKN-FM, and a public speaker on environmental topics.

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