In Bad Light

Back in the day, spec’ing LED lighting for a truck or trailer was an experience akin to licking your finger and sticking it into an electrical socket.

Lighting suppliers made a concerted effort to steer the discussion away from the shocking price of these tiny, solid-state diodes by promoting the value of LEDs: lower current draw, resistance to shock and vibration, fast response times, brighter illumination, and long service life. Many lamps are rated at 100,000 hours, which is six times that of an incandescent bulb.

Manufacturers also made big research and development investments to coax better performance out of fewer individual diodes in each assembly. Early stop/tail/turn lamps required as many as 128 separate diodes to meet motor vehicle safety standards in the United States and Canada. Now that number is 10 or less, depending on the make and model.

In any market, though, nothing drains the juice out of prices like competition. Today, there are dozens of suppliers of original and aftermarket LED lamps for trucks, cars, commercial trailers, recreational equipment — you name it. A lot of these newer suppliers are based overseas in places like China and Korea, where there’s a lot of cheap manufacturing capacity, and the result is products that cost 20 to 30 percent less than those made here at home.

Like anything else, when you buy an offshore, off-brand LED lamp, chances are you’re buying on price and aren’t expecting much long-range value. But you should expect your light to comply with minimum safety standards.

Some do not, says the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association.

MEMA and one of its subcommittees, the Transportation Safety Equipment Institute, say non-compliant lighting products compromise safety and unfairly compete with those made by companies that do invest in the materials, engineering, and testing necessary to meet federal requirements. The standards — CMVSS 108 in Canada and FMVSS 108 in the United States — dictate what lights you need, where to place them, and the illuminating power they must have.

“Not all LEDs are created equal,” says Mark Assenmacher, marketing manager at Peterson Manufacturing, which produces lighting, mirrors, reflectors, and other safety products for trucks. “Testing bears that out. If a lamp produces an uneven light pattern or less light output than what the government says is required, it shouldn’t be on the highway. Unfortunately, there’s been an influx of products into the marketplace that haven’t been tested, presumably because their manufacturers know they’re substandard.”

Not All LEDs Are Created Equal: Too many
products on the road aren’t properly tested

MEMA and lighting manufacturers want companies that sell, import, or manufacture non-compliant equipment to face substantial civil penalties. The U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has started to do just that; the most notable case was a $600,000 US fine levied against American Products Co. for selling lamps with reflectors that do not reflect light, even though their appearance was similar to compliant products.

That’s a big part of the problem, Assenmacher says. Many are made to look like legitimate products, right down to the DOT and SAE markings.

Assenmacher says maintenance managers and technicians need to be aware that non-compliant lighting equipment does exist and to know what to look for. “They’re in the best position to see what’s being installed on the truck or trailer,” he explains. “They come face to face with lamps when they do repairs or buy replacements.”

“Whether you’re talking about lights or whether you’re talking about wheel studs, it’s a real issue,” says George Cobham, the CEO of trailer maker Glasvan Great Dane. “Everything has an offshore copycat that’s not DOT or SAE approved.”

Cobham says the knockoff might look like the real thing, but it’s priced below the approved version.

There’ll always be somebody willing to buy on price alone, he says, adding “until somebody gets killed.”

After all, it’s not really about lights at all. It’s about safety.

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