By Daniel Stern, DVN Chief Editor
I’m frequently contacted by American and Canadian drivers frustrated with how difficult it is, often practically impossible, to get headlamps aimed properly. Optical headlamp aiming machines similar to those long used in Europe have been widely available in North America for years, but most shops don’t have them; most of those that have them, don’t use them, and most that use them don’t use them correctly or carefully. It is vexingly difficult in most places to find a shop that will do anything but crank the aim randomly upward if the driver says they can’t see well, or randomly downward if the driver says they get flashed by oncoming drivers. Consider this email that recently hit my desk:
I noticed my headlamps seemed to be aimed very low on my Lexus, so I went to my dealer and asked if they could use their optical aiming machine and point them in the correct direction. Their “master technician” informed me that they do own the correct machine, but it can’t be used to aim the headlights on my 2013 Lexus and instead they would aim them by shining them on a wall.
I figured they would have access to a better aiming wall and flatter pavement than I would, so I accepted this explanation. They made a complete mess of it and I ended up being charged an hour of labour for them to aim my lights upward by what they informed me was 1.5 degrees(!) but looks like probably even more than that. They took a situation that started bad and made it worse.
The inevitable result: my low beams glared everywhere, blinded everyone, and were generally mistaken for high beams by all. The glare was ridiculous and dangerous and the best output of my headlights was radiating uselessly off into the sky.
Since then, I have been trying to fix their hack job using my best approximation of a flat aiming surface. My region is so burdened with frost heave and poor drainage that it is nearly impossible to find 8 metres plus the car’s length of flat pavement – even in the few enclosed parking lots to which I have regular access.
While I believe that I now have the aim roughly correct, I still think they must have been lying to me about my headlights’ aimability. With my Honda Accord, the dealer told me the headlamps could not possibly be misaligned from the factory and the two-Lights-per-side setup was just confusing other people on the road, making them think they were seeing high beams, and that’s why they were flashing me.
Now with my Lexus, the dealer just randomly cranked the lights up. Adding insult to injury, their service writer left a patronising note to the effect that different vehicles will appear to have different headlight patterns because the headlights are mounted at different heights.
There’s a lot to see in this account of events, and none of it is very pretty: two dealers (Lexus and Honda in this particular case, but I’ve received numerous similar accounts involving most marques and a wide variety of independent shops) misinforming vehicle owners about headlamp aimability, dismissing the need for headlamp aim at all, refusing to use the correct tools at all, let alone correctly, and randomly changing the lamp aim in a dangerous manner.
I did an unscientific survey: I called around to a variety of shops and dealerships, said I wanted my headlamps aimed, and asked how they do it. The most common responses were:
- “We don’t, really, but if yours are way out we can try to level ’em out for you”
- “We shine ’em on a wall”
- “Are you getting flashed?”, and
- “Today’s headlights don’t need to be aimed, they set ’em at the factory”.
It’s true that modern headlamps, with their more robust mounting systems, are generally better at maintaining an aim setting than those on older cars. But that aim setting has to be correct, and modern headlamps also need to be aimed more precisely than old ones; they’re more intense and they have sharper low-beam cutoffs. UMTRI researchers long ago quantified the substantial degree to which those factors make proper aim easier and more crucial. The IIHS tests we’ve all been talking about so much lately clearly demonstrate that today’s headlamps very much do need to be aimed, even though it’s done on the assembly line (they also demonstrate that the US idea of eliminating horizontal aim adjustability might have been based on assumptions that haven’t held good, but that is a discussion of its own).
And while the SAE standard describing how headlamps should be aimed in service was tightened up last year to reduce the amount of upward aim before a low-beam headlamp should be considered too high, the reduction was from 10 to 6.4 cm above H-H. The peak intensity of today’s low beams is great enough that such a lamp aimed 6 cm above H-H should properly be called a high beam. Not that it matters much; very few U.S. states’ or Canadian provinces’ laws require periodic headlamp aim inspection, so the SAE standard goes largely unheeded anyway.
Plainly, something must be done. But what? It’s a steep uphill battle to make people understand the importance of headlamp aim in a region where there is no significant culture of giving a damn about car lights. In Europe, periodic aim inspection has long been just as widely accepted and understood as periodic engine oil changes: necessary, important, basic, routine car maintenance—not to mention car light safety months, magazines routinely publishing thorough performance comparisons of various cars’ headlamps, etc. None of this exists in America.
So we will have to start from square one with basic, intensive education of mechanics and car owners alike, and marketing of headlamp aim as a basic motoring need. It’s been tried before; Volkswagen published a technical service bulletin on the subject, but that was almost 20 years ago and there’s been no update or ongoing educational effort. Good idea, but insufficient muscle and amplification behind it.
Time is of the essence; revolutionarily bright and complex headlamps are coming tomorrow, not years from now; if nothing is done, that alone will make the problem very much worse. Perhaps it’s time for some European-style car lighting safety month type promotions and education campaigns. Who’ll step up and participate?