Understanding Car Safety Ratings – Valley’s Blog

Understanding Car Safety Ratings

May 2, 2014 1 Comment

Understanding Car Safety RatingsHow can the average person judge the safety of a car? The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the privately-run Insurance Institute for Highway Safety go about safety testing in similar ways, but they do not always reach identical conclusions. A big SUV and a tiny compact may appear to have the same safety ratings. How are these ratings done? What do they mean?

Testing Limitations

Despite their best efforts, neither NHTSA nor IIHS testing can keep up with the flood of new models. When buying a brand new model, a consumer may have to look at last year’s ratings. A consumer should read the fine print because every trim level within a model’s line-up does not get tested. Rear collision scenarios are not included because, as the NHTSA has stated, these are less deadly, and the agency’s limited funds must be used to perform the most vital testing.

Class Considerations

Vehicles are rated by their class. A five star compact car is probably not as safe as a five star SUV. Likewise a Top Safety Pick sedan is probably not as safe as a Top Safety Pick SUV. As the IIHS points out, if all safety systems are equal, a bigger, heavier vehicle is still safer than a smaller, lighter one. On the other hand, the NHTSA suggests that side ratings and rollover resistance are comparable even with weight and class differences. Safety worries can be very frustrating when hunting for a vehicle with better fuel economy. Fortunately, manufacturers are piling on airbags and other safety features to make high gas mileage vehicles safer.

Five Star Systems

The NHTSA uses a five-tier system to rate new cars. Frankly, you don’t want a car that can’t muster a minimum of four stars. Five stars indicates that dangerous injury rates will top out at 10 percent. At four stars, the rate is 20 percent. After that it jumps to 35 percent or much higher. The feds put each car through numerous accident scenarios, crashing lots of new vehicles in an effort to prove the viability of the safety systems. Frontal crash and side crashes determine structural protections. Rollover resistance determines the electronic stability system’s viability. Crash worthiness is determined by the effectiveness of the seat belts, airbags and vehicle structural enhancements.

Top Safety Pick

The IIHS ruins a lot of new vehicles, too, in its efforts to determine viability. They rate cars as Good, Acceptable/Marginal, or Poor. A good rating only indicates a 46 percent survival rating, but Good is enough for a Top Safety Pick. When comparing vehicles, you should look at its ratings in each category.

Top Safety Pick Plus

The IIHS now offers a Top Safety Pick Plus designation which applies only to models with crash avoidance features. To get a Plus vehicle, the consumer generally has to pay extra, but the IIHS has studies showing that these systems do prevent accidents.

IIHS Testing

To determine IIHS ratings, new vehicles are put through side crashes and two types of frontal crashes. They are rated for roof strength, which has been a common failure point with some vehicles. If a car or SUV rolls over, roof strength is vitally important to survival. Finally, they are rated for head restraints.

Head Restraint 101

Although they don’t move, passive head restraints can be vital at all rows of the vehicle. An active head restraint moves up and forward, catching the occupant’s head during a collision. Good head restraints prevent serious neck injuries such as whiplash.

Seat Belt 101

Seat belts are still a vital safety system. Many vehicles offer height-adjustable seat belts which are more comfortable and safer, especially for shorter people and children. According to NHTSA studies, pre-tensioning, load-limiting systems help the seat belt respond effectively with minimal damage to the rider. One automaker has introduced the option of inflatable seat belts for second row passengers.

Air Bag 101

Modern cars generally have four front airbags and two overhead air curtains for a total of six. Some models now add a knee airbag for the driver. A few more add a knee airbag for the front seat passenger. A handful of automakers are even adding second-row side airbags for a total of ten. Price is not a consideration as you may find 10 airbags in a low-to-medium priced car while find only six or seven in a luxury vehicle. A truly modern airbag system is electronically controlled to permit several levels of inflation and to prevent unnecessary deployment.

Structural Integrity 101

As cars became lighter, saving big money for their manufacturers and cutting price tags, the cabins became more vulnerable. Most manufacturers now offer a number of structural safeguards. Special features may include hood-buckling creases, multiple crumple zones, and a safety cage structure for channeling deadly force. Doors often hide high-strength steel beams to stop side crash incursions.

Advanced Electronic Systems

To get a Top Safety Pick Plus, the car must offer frontal collision systems. The latest advancements use cameras that analyze data in real time. The camera system offers frontal collision warnings with lane-keeping. The advanced frontal collision system adds crash-mitigation braking. Sometimes this system also comes with Adaptive Cruise Control which slows or speed as its camera detects the speed of traffic. The very latest is the Close Follow system which acts like cruise control in slower traffic situations. Early studies by the IIHS have determined that these systems are preventing accidents. You won’t find these on every car, but if it is available on a model you prefer, it may well protect your property and save your life.

Blind Spot Elimination

Although not yet recognized by the IIHS formally, the agency has been praising blind spot elimination efforts. A rear-facing radar system usually pairs blind spot detection while moving forward with rear cross traffic alert while in reverse. This usually shows up as an icon in the driver’s mirror. It may be active on both sides of the car. If offered, this system is usually an extra expense. A simple, yet effective device is the concave mirror that is now being added to the side mirrors by some automakers. When present, it does not add to the cost of the car.

Rear view Camera

A rear view camera is a standard on many cars and an affordable option on most others. It potentially prevents damage to the car, reducing the chances of hitting other cars, obstacles, pets or people. A rear sensor system, sometimes paired with a front sensor, can reduce dangers even more. These systems are not included in the safety ratings, but both the IIHS and NHTSA recognize that these cameras reduce the chance of accidents.

After Crash Systems

Also not included in the ratings, after-crash systems are becoming more important. More and more manufacturers are offering a mobile service subscription. When in force, airbag deployment results in a signal to the mobile service, which then calls 911 for you. At least one manufacturer equips its cars with an after-crash system that turns on the hazard lights, unlocks the doors and rolls down the windows.

Used Cars 101

If you are looking at used cars, it’s important to know that the NHTSA rules were much weaker prior to 2011. The feds now require electronic traction control. Different automakers use different systems, but the key is a blanket of sensors that watch for and correct little problems before they become bigger ones. By braking on individual wheels, ESC prevents sliding on slick surfaces and instability on uneven pavement. Brake Assist recognizes the need for a faster stop and add more pressure to braking. Many older cars do not have pre-tensioned seat belts or electronically-controlled airbag deployment. Many older pick-up trucks are woefully lacking even when it comes to a fair number of airbags. If you are buying a used car from before 2011, it would be safest to examine it for these features not just its NHTSA or IIHS ratings. Perhaps it’s time to trade your own old car for a much safer way to drive.


While there are no shortcuts to safety, there is a shortcut to buying a safer car. At Valley Auto Loans, our business is matching you to your best local dealer. You’ll get expert help from a great dealer who can explain the safety features and options on the car you want. A three-minute Valley Auto Loans application is your key to our nationwide network.

Understanding Car Safety Ratings by Jordan L Bourland

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One thought on “Understanding Car Safety Ratings”

  1.  src= Dennis Ho says: May 30, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Great information! It covers everything you need to know about car safety as a normal consumer. Thanks to the hard working!