Vehicle safety is one of the most important aspects of purchasing a new vehicle. Knowing that the vehicle we choose to put our kids in, drive to work, and use to escape the hustle and bustle of the daily grind is what inspires us to live our lives with confidence. It’s in this regard that car safety ratings mean so much to drivers and passengers. Vehicle safety ratings allow us to feel confident and reassured that our chosen chariots are capable of keeping us safe while on the road.

Reading into and understanding these car safety ratings on the other hand, can be confusing, and in all truthfulness – shouldn’t be.

Who Is Rating Vehicles?

In North America, there are two groups mainly responsible for rating the safety capabilities of most vehicles on the road today. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducts crash safety ratings on new vehicles and reports the results to the public via its website using a 5-star safety rating program.

In 2011, the NHTSA introduced tougher tests to its New Car Assessment Program, which required vehicles to perform better, and gave new ratings in its five-star system. Notably were an additional crash test, and a new dummy to represent smaller passengers to represent children and new criteria for existing side-impacts test results. The change was a direct result of most cars receiving a five-star rating, and when car safety ratings become a dime a dozen, the “tests must become more rigorous in order to move the safety bar higher.”

In contrast, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a private non-profit organization funded primarily by auto insurance companies and insurance associations, conducting different tests than the NHTSA, but similarly – testing the volume sellers, meaning the vast majority of popular cars that consumers are most likely to purchase.

Reading the Ratings

The IIHS test vehicles to evaluate two specific aspects of safety. Crashworthiness tells how well a vehicle is able to protect its occupants in a crash, and crash mitigation or avoidance is gauged to assess technologies that can help to lessen the severity of, or outright prevent an accident.

The IIHS assesses vehicles for crashworthiness by awarding ratings of “Good,” ‘Acceptable,” “Marginal,” and ‘Poor,” depending on the results observed in 5 different tests:

  • Moderate overlap front
  • Small overlap front
  • Side
  • Roof strength
  • Head restraints

They assess avoidance and mitigation by assessing vehicles with sufficient front crash prevention systems as “basic,” “advanced,” and “superior.” Headlights are also rated as good, acceptable, marginal and poor.

To qualify for a IIHS Top Safety Pick, vehicles have to score as “Good” in 5 crashworthiness tests and as advanced or superior in front crash prevention. Top Safety+ includes a “good” or “acceptable” headlight rating.

The NHTSA conducts its 5-star Safety Rating program by performing crash tests via frontal, side, and rollover tests, citing that these types of accidents account for the majority of crashes on public roadways. Their rollover test is rated based on the NHTSA’s Static Stability Factor test, which determines how top heavy a vehicle is, and how vulnerable a vehicle is to a rollover.

In 2006, the NHTSA required that all window labels of new vehicles included the results of the specific models 5-Star safety rating information. This is likely the most popular way to recognize a vehicle’s safety rating info – as it’s also mentioned in many vehicle advertisements as well.  The 5-star program is easily deciphered. One star represents the lowest possible rating, and five represents the highest. The more stars a vehicle earns, the better the safety.

Insurance & Safety

The ICBC recommends that consumers consult the US based Insurance Institute Highway Safety website, and further recommends that you look for vehicles that feature side airbags because they have the power to reduce the risk of side-impact injury by about 45%. They also recommend vehicles with electronic stability control because it can reduce the likelihood of a fatal single-vehicle crash by “about half.”

Typically, vehicles that score better vehicle safety ratings require a smaller insurance payment as a result of their capabilities, but insurance companies also take into account the size and type of the vehicle, its power, who’s going to be driving it predominantly, and where geographically it will be used. All of these factors will account for a vehicle’s inherent safety rating in the eyes of insurance groups. For example, a sporty coupe driven by a younger inexperienced driver in winter weather will be inevitably more expensive to insure than a sedan driven by an experienced middle-aged driver who lives in a temperate region with little snowfall.

When you’re considering purchasing a new, or used car for that matter, be sure to make investigating and interpreting the safety ratings of these two reputable organizations a pivotal part of your deliberation process. Style, speed, and utility are important, but safety is the one aspect of vehicle ownership that matters to everyone inside, not just the driver.

Taking the time to read and understand vehicle safety ratings, and the processes and technologies that earn vehicles their 5-Star Rating or Top Safety Pick ratings is the first step to making the road a safer place for everybody.