Holiday headlights feature

17 Aug, 2008 10:54am David Wrottesley

UK motorists need to adjust their headlamps for driving on the Continent. But as our exclusive survey reveals, many don’t know why – or how...

Staying on the right side of the law this summer could be harder than you think. If you’re driving to Europe, EU rules say your car needs to be equipped with a set of headlight adaptors – but fitting them correctly is notoriously difficult.

To prove it, Auto Express went to the Port of Dover, Kent, armed with a box of Eurolite adaptors and an alignment testing device. With the help of expert Charles Sterling, from the manufacturer of Eurolite, Travelspot, we put holidaymaking motorists to the test – with shocking results.

Adaptors have to be fitted as UK headlights are designed to kick up – point left, and slightly upwards – so drivers can read road signs. But if you’re driving on the right, this beam dazzles oncoming motorists’ eyes. Properly placed adaptors get round this.

However, more than half the people we tested could not fit the plastic stickers correctly. Up to 60 per cent said they found the instructions baffling. And two-thirds of the drivers we quizzed didn’t know they had to fit them at all – even though the stickers are readily available, and widely advertised at the port. As a result, they faced fines of up to £710 if they were stopped by police on the Continent!

Isabelle Dossantos of Newbury, Berks, was among the drivers we quizzed who had no knowledge of these rules. She told us she visits family in Metz, France, every three months, but has never fitted beam adaptors to her V-reg Peugeot 206. She said: “I had no idea it was the law.”

Worse still, 30 per cent of the people we stopped ignored our warnings and decided to head to France with illegal unadjusted lights! When you consider that 20,000 cars will be taken to the Continent during the summer’s peak season – according to Port of Dover officials – that’s potentially thousands of drivers putting lives at risk.

But fines aren’t motorists’ only concern. Our on-board expert, Charles Sterling, who tests the headlight alignment of new cars at UK dealerships, warned: “If you are involved in a crash on the Continent, and your headlights aren’t adapted properly, your insurer will only provide third-party cover.”

We asked the AA for some tips on adapting lights correctly. But technical specialist Vanessa Guyll warned it was too difficult for drivers to even attempt!

She explained they had no way of telling if the beams were still dazzling drivers without an MoT alignment check. “You need a trained mechanic to do it. Don’t wait until you arrive at the docks – it’s too late,” she said.

Owners of older models, which still have guidelines etched on the headlamp, should find fitting easier, as these show the motorist exactly where to put the adaptor. Modern lights have clear lenses, however, so we targeted these cars in our test.

As with all the kits currently on sale, Travelspot’s Eurolite adaptors come with extensive instructions. But our survey revealed the majority of motorists found them baffling. Most of the drivers who failed our test did so as they were looking at the headlight from the wrong angle. You need to be at eye level with the dipped bulb.

Travelspot operations director Peter Layton admitted the firm’s instructions don’t tell drivers to do this, but argued it was “just common sense”.

The fitting guide offers different advice for different models, so there are hundreds of cars detailed on the back. But Paul and Sue Steppy of Reading, Berks, found their T-reg Audi 80 Cabriolet wasn’t listed – leaving them unsure how to proceed.

To make matters worse, Paul’s headlights didn’t match; one was an old-style lamp complete with a guideline, while the other was clear.

The instructions told him to put the adaptors on in two different places, when in fact they should both be laid on the same spot. Sterling said: “We now have over 600 cars in the instructions, and have to update the list every six months to account for new vehicles.”

In some instances, the instructions were wrong, however. Andrew Hill from Bedlington, Northumberland, had no chance, as the diagram for his 05-plate Kia Picanto was totally misleading! It told him to put the adaptor at two o’clock in relation to the bulb, rather than the correct seven o’clock position.

Most of the drivers we spoke to, such as Chris Care of Faversham, Kent, found the instructions simply too complex. Another, Ben Griffiths from Chester, said: “This guide is a nightmare. I had to be told which was the dipped bulb – I would never know without digging out the handbook. And I wouldn’t bother – I’d have just stuck the adaptor anywhere.”

Charles Sterling argued that Travelspot has had relatively few complaints, however. He said: “We sell half-a-million kits a year and get maybe one or two complaints about owners being flashed by other drivers every 12 months. So I don’t think there is a problem with fitting them.”

Only two of the motorists we approached had fitted Metro Beam Benders – the main rival to Eurolite. They said they were simple to use, and in both cases they had cancelled out kick-up.

But our alignment machine revealed Beam Benders had also cancelled out the glare from the entire beam. So although the headlights were legal for the Continent, they would have been much less effective.

For drivers struggling to convert, it’s worth checking whether your car manufacturer can help. Some, such as Honda, have tried to make life easier on models with clear headlights by adding a tiny dimple on the lens to align the adaptor.

Civic Type R owner Steve Cuthbert, from Derby, told us this enabled him to fit the kit quickly and correctly. “It was quite easy once I found which diagram to look at,” he said.

Dave Williams of Wrexham, North Wales, said there were no guides on his Opel Zafira – and called on all manufacturers to make switching more simple. He suggested a template that fits over the entire headlamp.

Or perhaps it’s time makers followed Volvo’s lead. On some of its cars, owners can change the lights to Continental mode simply by pressing a button!

Extra Info

Top fitting tips

Many older cars have guide headlights, and the adaptor is simply lined up with the sloping line at the bottom. Modern clear-lens lamps are more tricky. Find the right diagram in the instructions, and locate the dipped bulb using the handbook. Keeping your eyes at headlight level, you stick the adaptor in the spot shown on the diagram.

How our drivers fared

No adaptors fitted 78%
Failed the test 52%
Didn’t know the law 69%
Baffled by instructions 60%
Drove off without adaptors 30%