More than ever, headlamps have become prominent styling items. Beautiful “eyes” can make or break a face as designers work hard to craft a captivating pair of headlights, which marketeers then use to flutter lustily at consumers. Tail lamp signatures too, but it’s important to put you best lamps forward.

The Civic FC’s bold front isn’t quite the same without those scaled LED headlamps, does it? And what’s a modern Mazda face without the dash-line LED DRLs that cup the LED headlamps? Our man Gerard Lye, with his halogen reflector-equipped early Mazda 2, knows the pain and daily longing for “the complete Mazda face”. Otherwise a mild-mannered lad, he doesn’t react well to the “taunting” of newer M2s.

It all started with tungsten, and then we had halogen reflectors on our cars, before projectors and then HID headlamps came in the picture. Now LED headlamps, once a preserve of flagship premium models, have crept into the mass market. Even the Honda City, a humble B-segment saloon, now comes with full LED headlamps. This trend will continue to fuel the desire for “white lights”, as the accessory shops refer to in Cantonese.

Halogen reflectors on the Proton Saga, halogen projectors on the Perodua Axia

The halogen bulb is cheap, and with a lifespan of 500 to 1,000 hours, it’s the most practical lighting solution for cars. However, it needs around 55 watts of power to function, and some of that energy is “leaked out” in the form of heat. Not the most efficient.

Light emitting diodes (LED), long used in electronics, are smaller in size and therefore more adaptable to designs. It’s also brighter and faster in reaching optimum brightness. Another advantage of LEDs is the claimed lifespan of up to 15,000 hours, which is much longer than halogens. Of course, LEDs are also more energy efficient and suffer from less heat dissipation – more of the power goes into illumination.

High intensity discharge (HID) lights produce a whitish light that’s brighter – by up to two or three times – than that produced by halogen lamps (LEDs are behind HIDs in this respect). It requires less power than halogens (around 35 watts) and is claimed to have a lifespan of approximately 2,000 hours.

LED headlamps on the Mazda 2 and Honda Civic

HID headlamps usually come with an auto-leveling function and have wider light dispersion. Wider and brighter means improved visibility and safety at night, not just for the driver, but for other vehicles as well. Now, since HIDs improve safety and aftermarket items are widely available, can we DIY swap our plain old halogens to HIDs? Is it legal?

You might have heard of various answers to this question, but for the definitive answer, our colleagues posed the question to Datuk Mohamad Dalib, director of the automotive engineering department at the Road Transport Department (JPJ). This is the only answer you’ll ever need, forget the rest.

“The rules on vehicle headlights are very clear. Any lights that are fitted on later (retrofitted), lights that differ from the original ones that came with the vehicle, they’re illegal. If it follows the specifications of the manufacturer, no problem,” he said, adding that in the UN Regulations 48 (UNR48), main headlamps can use bulbs with the maximum colour temperature of 4,300 K.

“But some HID bulbs on the market have colour temperatures of up to 16,000 K. That’s the problem, when we come across cars that blind opposing traffic. This endangers other road users, and we want to avoid this,” he said, adding that changing headlamps is also against the Vehicle Type Approval (VTA) that has been given to the vehicle.

So, there you have it, from the man himself. But what are the penalties that headlamp modifiers face? “Motorists who spot such cars can make a report via email ([email protected]). Provide information and a picture if possible. If there’s a report, JPJ can call in the vehicle for an inspection,” Mohd Dalib said. If the inspection reveals retrofitted headlamps, JPJ will issue a “Notis PG1” instructing the owner to return his car to its original state in 10 days.

Good news for those who have retrofitted LED daytime running lights, or if you’re intending to do so. That’s not a problem as DRLs do not involve complicated systems (unlike headlamps) and don’t use reflectors that can blind other motorists, the JPJ man explained. Enlightening, wasn’t it?

Read more JPJ answers on current trends such as vehicle body wrapping and “stance and fitment” a.k.a. hellaflush.