The constant march of technology has often created the need for new and sometimes even strange legislation and regulations, which come after the technology has been introduced. The large, well developed regulatory system often allows for great manufacturer freedom with reasonable restraints to avoid public harm. In the case of headlights, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 108 (FMVSS 108) governs a complicated laundry list of requirements relating to lighting and illumination.
Today the current regulation for headlights dictates that headlights operate with two types of beams, high and low. While a driver could flash their beams, have them automatically cycle between on and off, along with disabling them manually, the American driver is unable to do much more than that. The current regulations governing headlights has failed to be updated despite concerted efforts by large manufacturers, with recent attempts to allow more advanced lights being stuck in limbo. In contrast, drivers in other countries including Germany, England, and Japan can enjoy massive benefits with greater illumination offered that does not impede others.
Current illumination systems rely on a ruling that is antiquated and defines beams by luminescence and discreet modes offered. Rather than wrap, avoid, or target the blind spots the current system in place has been ignored while many drivers experience significant discomfort from the glare and are unable to see as far as possible. Legally speaking the issue posed by newer adaptive headlights used in cars from manufacturers such as Toyota, Volkswagen Auto Group, and Chevrolet along with others are unable to push forward a technology since adaptive headlights are classified as having more than two distinct level of luminesce.
These newer adaptive lights use aim LEDs that can selectively vary power levels to offer far greater aim and accuracy with rapid response times to changing situations from drive throughs to interstate highways. Unfortunately, this violates the premise of a single headlight system as defined in FMVSS 108 as a single change will classify the light as a different mode of operation. Limiting the headlights to two modes might have made sense decades ago, however today computers, cameras, and sensors now combine to allow lights that are far greater with the only downsides being cost and complexity.
This rule has been pushed back and delayed despite the pleading of manufacturers, proven history in other nations, and the ease with which it can be approved. While something like headlights may seem trivial, the reality is that much driving happens at night as evidenced by the continued rise of nighttime fatalities despite living in an era where many new vehicles offer standard automatic high beams. Clearly, the status quo is not sufficient. Governmental inaction for three years has limited the US to discreet light modes devised over half a century ago.
Deciding on the limiting factor here is hard, as the law has allowed the NHTSA, DOT, and other agencies to effectively use a prohibited technology for over three years at the time of this writing. No clear ruling has been stated as to why the headlight regulation cannot be changed. Manufacturers have a proven track record of over a million combined cars which have worked without significant incident.
The ideal situation moving forward in my opinion would be to offer simple, unifying US and European regulations to conform both continents to the same standard, or offering reciprocity. This would grant manufacturers and consumers better headlights without hindering the pace of globalization. With every major manufacturer working primarily out of the two markets, US and Europe, the merging of major standards would pay dividends with relaxed import laws, more efficient supply chains, and less waste overall.
Merging the entire ruleset would not be unheard of, as shown by the current flight regulations allowing for a good faith reciprocity via a series of bilateral treaties. Adaptive lights provide the next logical step in illumination with congressional action, regulatory action, or an import exemption for European headlights that would allow for the possibility of improving the illumination of roads. The arguments against adding adaptive beams have been made and range from complexity issues, to cost and simple resistance, to change in public comments in the last proposed legislation. While new automotive technology is rarely cheap, the proven nature and testing protocols which have been developed are close to ensuring a seamless transition and would hopefully be implemented within the next decade.
While the last regulatory update of Spring of 2021 resulted in no further updates from the 2018 request, since then the country has seen increased fatal traffic accidents, since the antiquated safety systems rarely come into effect until a crash has occurred. In order to better limit accidents, improve safety, and foster a system reflective of globalization and technological improvements, the proactive approach of modern, unified safety systems should be implemented over the antiquated, reactive system currently in place.
About the Author: Randy Nandlall is a current 2L at Cornell Law. He graduated from Hunter College where he majored in Political Science with a minor in Accounting, Law and Tax Track. In his spare time, Randy enjoys traveling and finding innovative local spots to eat. He is an associate for The Issue Spotter, the online edition of Cornell Law School’s Journal of Law and Public Policy, and a member of the First Generation Student Association.
Suggested Citation: Randy Nandlall, Light and Dark: Dazzled Americans Seek Illumination, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (February 3, 2022), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/?p=3861.