Car Buyer’s Guide to Safety Ratings


Looking for the right car doesn’t just mean visiting car dealership after car dealership. Thanks to the power of the Internet, all the information about all your car options is right at your fingertips, including the very important safety ratings. Car manufacturers tout these ratings during commercials, online and throughout the sales process, but what does it actually mean? We’re breaking it down to ensure you’re picking out the safest vehicle possible.

There are two important safety ratings to pay attention to: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA is a federal government organization, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation and IIHS is a nonprofit group funded by insurance companies, but both perform crash and safety tests to come up with safety ratings and scores.

The NHTSA uses a 5-Star Safety Ratings system, with a single star being a poor crash test performance and a five-star rating indicating outstanding crash performance. To come up with their rating, the NHTSA performs three tests:

  • A front test that measures the likelihood for driver or passenger injury when a vehicle crashes into a fixed barrier at 35 mph.
  • A side-impact assessment, which is an average of two tests – the first being hit from the side by a 3,000 lb. vehicle traveling at 38.5 mph and the second measuring the driver’s chance of injury in a 20 mph side-impact collision with a pole.
  • A rollover rating – this is actually not a test but a mathematical formula called the Static Stability Factor (SSF) that determines how “top heavy” vehicle is and whether it’s vulnerable to tipping in a severe driving maneuver.

After all three tests are completed, the NHTSA gives an overall score that indicates the car’s overall safety. The NHTSA posts all the results on their website and you can search for results based on the year, make and model of vehicle.


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The IIHS doesn’t rank cars based on stars, instead they use four rankings: Poor, Marginal, Acceptable and Good, with Good being the highest possible rating. The IIHS uses five different crash tests to come up with their rankings, including:

  • Small-overlap front test: 25% of the car’s frontal width strikes a barrier at 40 mph
  • Moderate-overlap front test: where a larger portion of the car strikes the same barrier at 40 mph
  • Side test: An SUV-like barrier hits cars at 31mph.
  • Roof-strength test: a metal plate is pushed against a car’s roof to determine whether it would easily collapse in a rollover
  • Head restraints and seats test: this test measures forces on a driver’s head and neck in a collision

Additionally, the IIHS rates vehicles with crash avoidance and mitigation technology as basic, advance or superior. This is based on the type of system and performance in track tests. They also give two awards based on vehicle performance in tests: a Top Safety Pick designation, meaning the performance in tests is well above average in their class and a Top Safety Pick+ designation, which is one step above and a prestigious award.

The IIHS lists all safety performance test results and award winners on their website, which is also searchable by make, model and vehicle type/size category.

What Test Should You Consider?

Neither test is better than the other, they’re simply different tests performed by different organizations, so we say it’s best to consider both! The more information you have about the safety of vehicle you’re considering, the better. In fact, we think it’s worth taking a look at recent recalls (a quick google search can reveal a wealth of information) and even browsing the Consumer Reports website, which provides vehicle recommendations based on combing safety data from both the IIHS and NHTSA.

If you’re purchasing a used vehicle, you should also consider having a trusted mechanic take a look to determine the vehicle’s overall condition and assess any problems that could develop.

When you’re armed with information, you can be sure you’re purchasing the safest car possible for yourself and your passengers.

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