Crash Safety Ratings 101

Do you get confused by the Crash Safety Ratings?

It seems as if there is always some news about this car or that winning or losing in a safety test. The car you heard about last week doing so poorly in a test may get great reviews this week for another test. What is the deal?

The first thing to understand is that there are two groups that do this testing.

The first is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) which does 3 separate tests to determine vehicle crash safety ratings. They test front impact by running the car straight into a wall, side impact by running a ram into the side of the car and rollover by doing a mathematical calculation of the car’s ability to stay on all 4 wheels and resist rolling over in an accident.

The other group is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). This insurance industry funded group does 5 different tests. They do a small offset front crash where only the front corner of the car impacts the wall, a moderate offset front crash where about half the front of the car hits the wall, a side impact test using two rams in two impacts to measure injury to passengers and a roof crush test where a large plate is pressed down on the car roof to see how much force it can withstand.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Logo

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The NHTSA uses a “Star” rating, giving the top rating of 5 stars to the best performers. They also use an overall star rating that is a composite of the individual tests. IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor, based on performance in the five tests. They will pick a vehicle as Top Pick if it excels above the other offerings in its class.

Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick +

IIHS Awards

To make things a bit more complicated IIHS now has a “Top Pick+” category. The + indicates the car has collision avoidance technology that reduces the chance of a collision. This can be passive warnings that sound a chime or flash alight, or active controls that will brake the car or steer it away from a wreck. When IIHS determines a vehicle to have class leading collision avoidance AND collision protection it will award that car Top Pick+. In the area of crash avoidance and mitigation, IIHS assigns vehicles with available front crash prevention systems ratings of basic, advanced or superior, based on the type of system and performance in track tests.

Many other tests are conducted that do not figure into the crash safety rating of the car. One such test is the low speed impact test. This simulates a low speed bumper to bumper crash such as we see almost every morning on the way to work. During this test the cost of repairs is considered the primary measurement of success.

When buying a replacement car, either new or used, it may be a good idea to compare safety ratings before deciding which to buy. No matter what car you choose, any built in this decade is considerably safer than anything built before.