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Are Headlights Too Bright?

For 35 years or so, I was a licensed brake and lamp adjuster for the state of California. What that means is, if a vehicle is involved in a traffic accident or receives a lighting citation from law ­enforcement, a state inspector must inspect the vehicle and issue a certificate to be shown to the courts. 

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During the inspection, all the lights must operate just as they did on the day that vehicle rolled off the factory assembly line. That includes the way they’re mounted and the brightness of each light. The headlights must be aimed slightly to the right and down, so they don’t blind oncoming drivers. The last part of the inspection is measuring the headlight intensity. 

All those stringent inspection rules are designed to keep us safe while driving at night. Now, I live in a state where vehicle-lighting laws are not enforced, and I do notice a big difference while driving at night. Having to look away from the oncoming headlights at night is dangerous. 

‘Just Give Me The Brightest One’ 

At the counter, I get a lot of customers asking for the brightest headlight bulbs that we sell. I know that means that the headlight housings on their vehicle are dull due to age and ozone deterioration. 

Brighter bulbs mean more heat inside the headlight housings. More heat means the already-dull housings will deteriorate faster.  You can spot them a mile away, so to speak. They look bright and fuzzy as they approach you at night. 

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The customers who come in laughing and asking for the brightest bulbs that we sell  – the ones that will blind the other drivers at night – get extra-special attention from me. I explain how those extra-bright bulbs place them in danger as the oncoming drivers are blinded by them. 

Next to buying extra-bright bulbs are the lens-cleaning kits that claim better lighting at night. Cleaning the lens is just half the battle. Behind the lens and around the bulb is the reflective material that reflects and focuses the light that is radiated by the bulb itself into a beam of light. A clear beam of light that is aimed correctly makes for safer driving for everyone on the road at night. 

When selling any light bulb to a customer, always recommend them in pairs. If you consider that the light bulbs on that vehicle were made in the same factory and have lived in the same conditions, it’s likely that the life expectancy is just about equal for the other headlight or taillight.

One great customer builder is to go out to the customer’s vehicle and check all the lights on the vehicle for them. You can check for moisture in the light housings, cracked lenses and loosely mounted housings. It’s a great time to ask if the vehicle has a history of related problems and uncover other problems that might lead to additional sales. 

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It’s also important to keep an eye out for damaged body parts on which the headlights are mounted. Installing headlights on damaged body parts means they cannot be aimed properly. In states like California, where lamp inspections are conducted by the state, there are height restrictions that mandate the headlights cannot be higher than 54 inches and no lower than 22 inches from the ground.

During a lamp inspection, I failed a Chevrolet Blazer for having headlights that were way too high. The owner had a specially constructed and lifted Blazer. When he asked me what he had to do to make the vehicle compliant, I let him know he had to lower the vehicle back down to where the headlights were less than 54 inches from the ground. As you might imagine, he wasn’t happy.

Here’s a good one: If someone walks into your parts store and asks you for a rear fog light for his Mercedes-Benz, you would think this guy spends a little too much time on the internet. But it’s true. Some European vehicles have what’s called a rear fog light. It’s always mounted on the side of the vehicle closest to the center line of the road. It’s brighter than the other taillight to help you see where the car ends for safer passing while driving or when parked.

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Over the years, I’ve found that prejudging a customer request is a lost sale. Always keep an open mind and ask a few questions when a customer asks an oddball question. That open-minded attitude will be noticed by customers and earn you a loyal following. You can tell you’re building a strong following when another counter person answers the phone and you hear, “Charlie it’s for you,” time after time. When the other counter people start razzing you and calling it “Charlie’s answering service,” you know you’re there.

Just Right

Counter pros need to be careful to avoid recommending a bulb that’s too bright or not bright enough. For example, a 3157 bulb and a 4157 look identical, but the 4157 is brighter. The higher the bulb number, the brighter it is. If any of the bulbs are too bright or too dim, it attracts the attention of law enforcement. 

Please always look up the bulb by year, make and model of the vehicle. I’ve witnessed other mechanics in the shops I worked in spending hours trying to determine the cause of a dim bulb – only to later discover it was the wrong bulb installed by someone else.

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‘Can You Install This?’

Often after the sale, customers may ask if you can install the bulbs. The first thing I consider is if we have enough people at the counter to cover me going outside to help a customer install the bulbs. If we don’t, I explain to the customer that I don’t have enough help right now and if they want to come back when we have enough help here, we can give it a try for them. If we do, I let them know if it’s a simple installation, I’ll be glad to help. In situations where you must remove things like batteries and air-filter housings, it’s best to refer the customer to a local technician for the job.

LED There Be Light

A word of caution about add-on LED and HID systems. Many of those add-on systems may be of lower quality than you want to stake your reputation on. I’ve had several customers come in with add-on systems that have burned-out LED and HID bulbs and modules at inconvenient times for them and no replacement parts on the shelf. That means they must risk driving without a headlight while they source a replacement part or park the car until it’s repaired correctly. I’ve seen instances in which the kit they bought to start with is no longer available. 

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The good news is that help is on the way. Many new vehicles are now equipped with LED headlights. The LED headlights are being developed to cut down on glare that affects oncoming drivers. The marker and taillights are much brighter so other drivers can see you a long way before you get too close to them. 

The LED market will open a whole new market for aftermarket parts suppliers. When one LED segment fails in a headlight or taillight cluster, the entire cluster must be replaced. That’s a better sale than, say, an 1157 bulb. Also, many factory LED headlight and taillight systems are mounted in rubber grommets that can be an add-on sale.

With the increasing use of LED technology, we are headed for brighter night driving that also will be safer for all.

Charles Dumont is an ASE-certified counter professional with NAPA Auto Parts in Shelton, Washington. A regular contributor to Counterman, Dumont is the 2020 NAPA/ASE Parts Specialist of the Year.

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