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On-road Editor: Out go the lights

TORONTO, Ont. - Those trailer lights look good. But are they safe and compliant?...

TORONTO, Ont. – Those trailer lights look good. But are they safe and compliant?

North American truck lighting manufacturers are becoming increasingly concerned about offshore imports wading into their marketplace. And they think some of these copycats may be selling inferior goods.

“The issue is that the products coming in from offshore, in general, are not meeting the minimum standards for photo metric visibility and intensity performance as well as mechanical function requirements,” according to Brad Van Riper, president of the U.S.-based Transportation Safety Equipment Institute.”They (the offshore manufacturers) are able to charge you about the same price as a good lamp but they’re spending a lot less on the individual light emitting diodes,” he says.

Cheaper offshore truck lights started to trickle into the North American market during the mid-’90s, when LED technology first became popular. The parts, usually manufactured at factories in Asia (and more often than not, China), were originally poorly made knock-offs.

The trickle has become a torrent and today’s imitations are often almost indistinguishable from the originals. The copies even use similar-looking packaging – from the same bubble pack to the printing on the box.

Van Riper estimates that the big three North American truck lighting manufacturers (Petersen Manufacturing, Truck-Lite and Grote) have lost 15 per cent of their business to offshore imports in the last few years – from 95 per cent of the pie to a present day low of 80 per cent.

To be clear, all the North American lighting manufacturers do import some amount of product from overseas. The difference, according to Van Riper, is that domestic manufacturers assume liability for their goods.

“Each supplier has a self-certification system and the responsibility to test the product initially and maintain a due care process,” says Van Riper. “We’ve just tested some (imported) lamps that are 50 per cent lower than the minimum intensity. We’ve actually run into some that are 90 per cent below minimum requirements.”

Canada also has a self-certification system but this only applies to new vehicles. Manufacturers must certify their product conforms to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. A few years ago, Transport Canada conducted extensive trials of vehicle lighting systems. However, their samples were taken off the production line and intended for new vehicles. After-market lighting kits did not fall under their scrutiny.

“We are not aware of them because we do not regulate after-market components,” says Marcin Gorzkowski, developer of the lighting regulations for Transport Canada’s road safety branch. “There are 3,500 manufacturers of trailers, buses and motor homes in Canada, and we have seven inspectors who are very busy.”

So how can you tell if your equipment is compliant? Van Riper says that a few questions can quickly determine if you have a quality replacement part. Does the product have a North American address? Does a North American lab provide certification? Do they engrave their name into the product? “If they don’t engrave their name, you probably don’t want to risk spending your money on their replacement parts,” he says.

Lastly, Van Riper thinks you should check to see if the design voltage is listed. “When enforcement testing is done it’s kind of a game to guess the voltage,” he says. “Usually it’s whatever makes the product pass.”

As a CVSA enforcement officer with the Aurora, Ont. Ontario Provincial Police, Sgt. Cam Wooley inspects a lot of trucks. “On the road I see some of the el cheapo stuff,” he says.

“They deteriorate quickly. In general terms we see a lot of cheap quality stuff that doesn’t stand up well to Canadian climate. The lamp assemblies fail.”

Knock-off lighting components are available from parts suppliers as well as some truck stops and flea markets. But Wooley doesn’t think there is a problem with their design overall.

“I don’t know of any collision where design has been an issue – it’s usually a maintenance issue,” he says. “I don’t know how many trucks we’ve stopped, but we’re looking for stuff like that and we’ve caused recalls.”

Lighting used to be the most frequent trailer repair until the introduction of LEDs. Many larger fleets have switched to the new technology because of the long life span of the parts.

But offshore products may have less rigorous quality control standards. So the money you save in the short haul may eventually cost you double or triple the price of a domestic light. Plus the bother of getting on a ladder and changing a clearance light.

“Something as simple as a signal light can put you out of service,” adds Wooley, who also owns a fleet of vehicles that he rents to the film industry. Some of these off brands do go dim, they don’t last. The message is you get what you pay for.”

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