Understanding Car Safety Ratings

Lucy Lazarony
June 22, 2020

Car safety ratings on new cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles help new car shoppers choose safe vehicles to drive. A safety rating system also encourages automakers to produce safer vehicles. Who does the testing? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been using its 5-Star Safety Ratings system to test cars for safety since 1993. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has its own Top Safety Pick+ and Top Safety Pick designations for safe vehicles.

Let’s start by taking a look at the NHTSA and its 5-Star Safety Ratings.

NHTSA Ratings Consumer Tools

You can search for vehicle safety information by a vehicle’s year, make and model on the NHTSA website. And you also can search safety ratings by auto manufacturer.

Shopping for a new car? NHTSA’s comparison tool lets you compare 5-Star Safety Ratings and recall information. You’ll get an overall safety rating, information on frontal crash, side crash and rollover crash results, safety issues including recalls, investigations and complaints and safety technology recommendations for each vehicle you choose. You are able to compare three vehicles at a time so it is a good tool to use when trying to choose between vehicles.

NHTSA Car Safety History

Now let’s take a look at a little bit of the history of the NHTSA. It all started in 1970, when the Highway Safety Act established the NHTSA with a mission to reduce deaths, injuries and economic losses from motor vehicle crashes.

In 1978, the NHTSA began testing and rating vehicles for frontal impact protection by using data from crash test dummies.

As mentioned above, in 1993 the NHTSA began using the 5-Star Safety Ratings system to help consumers make informed safety choices when buying new vehicles.

In 1996, the NHTSA began testing for side crash protections. And in 2000, the NHTSA began testing vehicles for resistance to rollover crashes. These rollover crashes are more dangerous than other types of automobile crashes.

In 2006, the NHTSA required that vehicle window labels on new vehicles include 5-Star Safety Ratings information.

In 2010, NHTSA ratings included an overall vehicle score and a listing of advanced recommended safety technologies.

In 2013, the NHTSA added rear view video systems to its list of recommended technologies to help prevent backover accidents.

In 2016, the NHTSA added automatic emergency braking systems to the list of recommended technologies to help prevent or reduce the impact of speed in rear-end crashes.

In addition to helping consumers choose safe vehicles when vehicle shopping, the 5-Star Safety Rankings system is meant to encourage automakers to produce cars with better crash protection and new crash avoidance technologies. Doing so will save more lives and reduce passenger and pedestrian injuries.


Now let’s take a look at the IIHS and its Top Safety Pick+ and Top Safety Pick designations and its vehicle testing program.

IIHS is an independent, nonprofit, scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses, deaths, injuries and property damage from motor vehicle crashes. The IIHS tests two aspects of vehicle safety, how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash and crash avoidance and mitigation.

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) shares and supports the mission with the IIHS through scientific studies of insurance data representing the human and economic losses from the ownership and operation of different types of vehicles. HLDI also publishes insurance loss results by vehicle, make and model.

Now let’s take a look at a little of the history of the IIHS.

The History of IIHS

The IIHS was founded in 1959 by three major insurance associations representing 80 percent of the U.S. auto insurance market. At first, its purpose was to support highway safety efforts of others. A decade later, the institute was reinvented as an independent research organization.

In 1992, IIHS opened the Vehicle Research Center for performing crash tests. These crash tests form the basis of its vehicle ratings. Vehicles are rated for safety based on performance in crash tests and the best performers carry the Top Safety Pick+ and Top Safety Pick designations.

IIHS Top Safety Pick Awards

IIHS has been awarding The Top Safety Pick since the 2006 model year and the Top Safety Pick+ was first awarded in 2013. The awards identify the best vehicle choices for safety within different size categories. In general, larger, heavier vehicles afford more protection than smaller, lighter vehicles. IIHS tests have encouraged automakers to produce safer vehicles, which is the ultimate goal.

Safer Roadways

The number of people killed on the roads in the United States has fallen since 1979 even as the population and number of miles driven has climbed. According to the IIHS, much of this improvement is a result of safer vehicles.

Improvements in Safety Test Performances

When IIHS began its moderate overlap frontal crash tests in 1995 about half of the vehicles earned marginal or poor ratings and more were rated poor than good. Today, nearly all vehicles earn good ratings for this test. Ratings for side impact tests and rear and rollover ratings have improved too.

The Need for More Safety

Because of advances in vehicle technology the number of people killed in motor vehicle crashes in the US has fallen from more than 50,000 in 1980 to 36,560 in 2018. And this downturn in the number of deaths on American roadways is good news. Statistics for pedestrian accidents aren’t nearly so positive.

Unfortunately, over the past decade the number of pedestrians killed on US roads has gone up. The number of pedestrians killed by vehicles rose 53 percent from 2009 to 2018.

A June 2020 study from IIHS found that the late model SUVs appear to be more likely to kill pedestrians than cars. Another startling statistic, pedestrians now account for nearly one-fifth of all traffic fatalities. As for SUVs, there are more on the road. From 2009 to 2018 the share of SUVs in the US fleet rose to 29 percent from 21 percent. The IIHS study on pedestrian deaths and SUVs was small and more research and a larger study is required but it is indicative of the type of studies and research IIHS is doing.

How Vehicles Are Tested

The NHTSA and IIHS simulate vehicle crashes and use crash test dummies in determining their safety rankings. They also look at how well the vehicles being tested avoid crashes. Vehicles that perform well in these tests receive high ratings and awards for safety within its vehicle class. The awards make it easy for consumers to check out the safety standards of a car they are interested in buying. What kind of safety rating does the vehicle have? How does it stack up against other cars in its class? Is it better or worse? Or does the vehicle have a good overall rank?

Shop for Safety

Are you shopping for a new car? Shop safety first. Visit the NHTSA and IIHS websites and check out their vehicle safety ratings. What vehicle are you interested in buying? What is its safety rating? Check both sites. Are there other vehicles with more outstanding safety records? They may be worth checking out especially if it is in the same vehicle class as your current favorite.

Don’t feel like going online? Shop the old fashioned way by visiting a new car lot. But you won’t be far from vehicle safety information, you will find NHTSA safety information on the sticker window of every new car. Choosing between models? Don’t forget to compare safety information first.

Stay Informed

Vehicle safety is an important issue for everyone on the road. NHTSA and IIHS provide valuable information on this subject through articles and studies as well as vehicle ratings.

Has there been a safety recall on the car you have in your driveway right now? Have you checked? You can check for recalls on your vehicle by visiting NHTSA.gov/Recalls.

Summer Driving Tips

The NHTSA also offers summer driving tips for 2020. Among the tips is building your own emergency road kit and taking it with you before your next big trip.

What goes in an emergency road kit? Here is the list: cell phone and charger, first aid kit, flashlight, flares and a white flag, jumper cables, tire pressure gauge, jack and ground mat for changing a tire, work gloves and a change of clothes, basic repair tools and some duct tape, water and paper towels, nonperishable food, drinking water and medicine, extra windshield washer fluid, maps and emergency blankets towels and coats. Another tip is to get your car serviced before a trip. Regular maintenance such as tune-ups, oil changes, battery checks and tire rotations go a long way in preventing breakdowns. Before your next big trip is a good time to check.

When you are finally away on a trip, don’t rush. Give yourself plenty of time to get where you are going. Familiarize yourself with directions and maps before you go, even if you have a GPS system. Let other people know your route and when you are expected to be at your destination. So be a safe and prepared driver on the road and use vehicle safety ratings as a guide when you are shopping for a new car. Stay informed about vehicle safety by visiting NHTSA and IIHS websites throughout the year.

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