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What is a Safety Rating?

Published January 2, 2019

When purchasing a new vehicle, many shoppers are just as concerned about the safety of the vehicle as they are about any of its other features. It is a very rationale concern as cars, trucks, and SUVs have gotten heavier in weight and drivers are now more distracted than ever before. Buyers want to know that the vehicle they purchase will keep them as safe as possible in a collision.

The most common method of evaluating the safety of a vehicle is to check out its safety rating. However, for any vehicle, there is not just one safety rating but two. One is issued by the Federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA). The other is issued by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and is funded by the insurance companies. While NHTSA and IIHS have similar testing protocols, there are also differences to consider when understanding your safety rating. By understanding the differences between each type of safety rating, you can make the best possible decision regarding the safety of the vehicle you are considering.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration test created the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program to provide consumers with information about the crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by Federal law. One star is the lowest rating while five stars are the highest. More stars equal safer cars.

The five tests that NHTSA conducts are a Frontal Crash, a Side Barrier Crash (simulating being hit on the side by another car), a Side Pole Crash (simulating sliding into a telephone pole on the driver’s side), and a test to determine a vehicle’s ability to resist Rollovers. The number of stars each vehicle rates in each of the following tests determines its score.

The Front Crash test represents a crash of two similar vehicles of the same weight and evaluates injuries to the head, neck, chest, and leg. The Side Barrier Crash represents an intersection-type collision using a 3,015 lb. barrier moving at 38.5 mph into a stationary vehicle being tested. The injuries to the head, chest, abdomen, and pelvis are evaluated. The Side Pole Crash represents a vehicle striking an approximately one-inch pole at 20 mph. Injuries are also evaluated in this instance.

The Rollover test is only conducted by NHTSA and not by the IIHS, so there is no data to compare. The NHSTA test is based on an at-rest laboratory measurement known as the Static Stability Factor (SSF) that determines how “top-heavy” a vehicle is. The results simulate whether a vehicle is vulnerable to tipping over on the road in a severe turning maneuver.

Insurance Institute of Highway Safety

IIHS testing evaluates two aspects of safety: crashworthiness (how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash) and crash avoidance and mitigation (technology that can prevent a crash or lessen its severity).

To determine crashworthiness, the IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor, based on performance in six tests: driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints.

One of the most important differences between the NHTSA tests and the IIHS tests is the driver-side small overlap frontal crash test. The test is designed to replicate what happens when the front left corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole. This is not part of NHTSA testing but is included in the IIHS testing and is a good indication of how a vehicle would perform in a common scenario.

In the area of crash avoidance, vehicles with available front crash prevention systems are rated basic, advanced, or superior. This rating is based on the type of system and performance in track tests. The IIHS also tests headlight performance and rates each as good, acceptable, marginal or poor.
The best way to utilize the information provided by NHTSA and the IIHS testing is the same way you would compare the road tests results from two different car magazines. Review each closely, look for areas where the testing is corroborated and dig more deeply into results that appear different between the two organizations. By carefully studying the test results, you will be able to select the type of vehicle you’re seeking that offers the highest levels of safety.
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