Headlight Regulations and Requirements

Modern headlamps are electrically operated, positioned in pairs, one or two on each side of the front of a vehicle. A headlamp system is required to produce a low and a high beam, which may be achieved either by an individual lamp for each function or by a single multifunction lamp. High beams (called “main beams” or “full beams” or “driving beams” in some countries) cast most of their light straight ahead, maximizing seeing distance, but producing too much glare for safe use when other vehicles are present on the road. Because there is no special control of upward light, high beams also cause backdazzle from fog, rain and snow due to the retroreflection of the water droplets. Low beams (called “dipped beams” in some countries) have stricter control of upward light, and direct most of their light downward and either rightward (in right-traffic countries) or leftward (in left-traffic countries), to provide safe forward visibility without excessive glare or backdazzle.

Low beam

E-code dipped/low beam

Asymmetrical low beam illumination of road surface — right-traffic beam shown

Low beam (dipped beam, passing beam, meeting beam) headlamps provide a distribution of light designed to provide adequate forward and lateral illumination with limits on light directed towards the eyes of other road users, to control glare. This beam is intended for use whenever other vehicles are present ahead. The international ECE Regulations for filament headlamps[4] and for high-intensity discharge headlamps[5] specify a beam with a sharp, asymmetric cutoff preventing significant amounts of light from being cast into the eyes of drivers of preceding or oncoming cars. Control of glare is less strict in the North American SAE beam standard contained in FMVSS / CMVSS 108.[6]

High beam

European E-code high/full beam

Symmetrical high beam illumination of road surface

High beam (main beam, driving beam, full beam) headlamps provide a bright, centre-weighted distribution of light with no particular control of light directed towards other road users’ eyes. As such, they are only suitable for use when alone on the road, as the glare they produce will dazzle other drivers. International ECE Regulations permit higher-intensity high-beam headlamps than are allowed under North American regulations.[7]

Compatibility with traffic directionality

Most low-beam headlamps are specifically designed for use on only one side of the road. Headlamps for use in left-traffic countries have low-beam headlamps that “dip to the left”; the light is distributed with a downward/leftward bias to show the driver the road and signs ahead without blinding oncoming traffic. Headlamps for right-traffic countries have low beams that “dip to the right”, with most of their light directed downward/rightward. Within Europe, when driving a vehicle with RH-traffic headlamps in a LH-traffic country or vice versa for a limited time (as for example on vacation or in transit), it is a legal requirement to adjust the headlamps temporarily so that the wrong-side hot spot of the beam does not dazzle oncoming drivers. This may be achieved by adhering blackout strips or plastic prismatic lenses to a designated part of the lens. Many tungsten (pre-halogen) European-code headlamps made in France by Cibié, Marchal, and Ducellier could be adjusted to produce either a left- or a right-traffic low beam by means of a two-position bulb holder. More recently, some projector-type headlamps can be made to produce a proper left- or right-traffic beam by shifting a lever or other movable element in or on the lamp assembly.

Because wrong-side-of-road headlamps blind oncoming drivers and do not adequately light the driver’s way, and blackout strips and adhesive prismatic lenses reduce the safety performance of the headlamps, most countries require all vehicles registered or used on a permanent or semipermanent basis within the country to be equipped with headlamps designed for the correct traffic-handedness. North American vehicle owners sometimes privately import and install Japanese-market (JDM) headlamps on their car in the mistaken belief that the beam performance will be better, when in fact such misapplication is quite hazardous and illegal.[8]

Use in daytime

Main article: Daytime running lamp

Some countries require automobiles to be equipped with automatic daytime running lamps (DRL), which are intended to increase the conspicuity of vehicles in motion during the daytime. DRL may consist of the manual or automatic illumination of the low beams at full or reduced intensity, or the high beams at reduced intensity, or may not involve the headlamps at all. Countries requiring DRL include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Sweden.

Construction, performance, and aim

There are two different beam pattern and headlamp construction standards in use in the world: The ECE standard, which is allowed or required in virtually all industrialised countries except the United States, and the SAE standard that is mandatory only in the US. Japan formerly had bespoke lighting regulations similar to the US standards, but for the left side of the road. However, Japan now adheres to the ECE standard. The differences between the SAE and ECE headlamp standards are primarily in the amount of glare permitted towards other drivers on low beam (SAE permits much more glare), the minimum amount of light required to be thrown straight down the road (SAE requires more), and the specific locations within the beam at which minimum and maximum light levels are specified.

ECE low beams are characterised by a distinct horizontal “cutoff” line at the top of the beam. Below the line is bright, and above is dark. On the side of the beam facing away from oncoming traffic (right in right-traffic countries, left in left-traffic countries), this cutoff sweeps or steps upward to direct light to road signs and pedestrians. SAE low beams may or may not have a cutoff, and if a cutoff is present, it may be of two different general types: VOL, which is conceptually similar to the ECE beam in that the cutoff is located at the top of the left side of the beam and aimed slightly below horizontal, or VOR, which has the cutoff at the top of the right side of the beam and aimed at the horizon.[9]

Proponents of each headlamp system decry the other as inadequate and unsafe: U.S. proponents of the SAE system claim that the ECE low beam cutoff gives short seeing distances and inadequate illumination for overhead road signs, while international proponents of the ECE system claim that the SAE system produces too much glare.[10] Comparative studies have repeatedly shown that there is little or no overall safety benefit to either SAE or ECE beams; the two systems’ acceptance and rejection by various countries is based primarily on inertial and philosophical grounds.[9],[11]

In North America, the design, performance and installation of all motor vehicle lighting devices are regulated by Federal and Canada Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, which incorporates SAE technical standards. Elsewhere in the world, ECE internationalised regulations are in force either by reference or by incorporation in individual countries’ vehicular codes.

US laws required sealed beam headlamps on all vehicles between 1940 and 1983, and other countries such as Japan, United Kingdom and Australia also made extensive use of sealed beams. In most other countries, and in the US since 1984, replaceable-bulb headlamps predominate.

Headlamps on new vehicles must produce white light, according to both ECE and SAE standards. Previous ECE regulations also permitted selective yellow light, which from 1936 until 1993 was required on all vehicles registered in France. Yellow headlamps are no longer required anywhere, but remain permitted in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand, and some other countries.

Headlamps must be kept in proper alignment (or “aim”). Regulations for aim vary from country to country and from beam specification to beam specification. US SAE headlamps are aimed without regard to headlamp mounting height. This gives vehicles with high-mounted headlamps a seeing distance advantage, at the cost of increased glare to drivers in lower vehicles. ECE headlamps’ aim angle is linked to headlamp mounting height. This gives all vehicles roughly equal seeing distance and all drivers roughly equal glare.[12]

Headlamp. (2010, January 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:49, January 7, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Headlamp&oldid=336224700

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