How often do headlights need to be adjusted?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 01, 1997

Dear Tom and Ray:

How often, if ever, do the headlights of a 1992 Ford Crown Victoria have to be adjusted? I have such a car, and when it was recently given an annual inspection per state law, I was charged an additional $15 for a headlight adjustment. The car has never been in an accident, and the fender is not distorted. While the car has high mileage, much of which is night driving, I have neither noticed nor have been alerted by oncoming drivers of any problem.

I've been going to this particular shop for several years, and it's no nickel-and-dime operation. I'm not asking you to reach into your Department of Automotive Ethics; I just want to know if it's unusual for this new type of headlight to need an adjustment. -- John

RAY: Yes, it is unusual. But it's not unheard-of. Typically, no adjustments are needed unless the car has been hit.

TOM: But we have seen cars with high mileage that need a headlight adjustment just because the suspension has sagged over the years. As those springs get old and weak, the whole front end of the car gets lower, including, of course, the headlights.

RAY: Or on some really old heaps (e.g., my brother's 1963 Dodge Dart), the little springs that hold the headlight bucket in place wear out, and that can cause the headlights to go out of adjustment frequently -- like every time he goes over a bump.

TOM: So we can't tell you whether or not yours needed adjusting, John. The only way you could have known for sure would have been to see for yourself. Most inspection stations have a headlight grid on the wall that looks like a modified archery target (of course, it's not round, and it doesn't have a bull's-eye, but other than that, it looks just like an archery target!). And if your headlights shine into the proper area from a certain distance away, they're OK. If not, they need adjusting. Your mechanic should have gotten your approval before performing any repairs, and at that time, if you had a question, he could have easily showed you where your lights hit the chart.

RAY: Moreover, and I know you asked us not to get into automotive ethics, John, but, adjusting the headlights on this car is a five-minute job at most -- if you're slow. And if you were one of my regular customers, having come to me for all your service over the years, I would have adjusted the headlights for nothing. If you just walk in off the street, that's one thing. But this is such a nothing little job that I would never charge a long-time customer to do it.

TOM: Right. Look what happened because of this incident. You've been a regular customer there for years. Now you're suspicious of the guy, you're writing to us, and you may not go back again because you're afraid he ripped you off. Now, was that worth the 15 bucks he made off you?

RAY: Right. If he had done it for free, you would have been thrilled, right? And your loyalty would have been that much stronger. And who knows what could have happened in the future if he hadn't been so greedy? He could have gotten you for a whole transmission job in a year or two!

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