Understanding automotive safety ratings

Woman looking in the window of a new vehicle
Woman looking in the window of a new vehicle
Author Jason Lam
Associate Director of Data Analytics – Dairyland
January 24, 2024
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Automotive safety ratings are important resources when purchasing any type of car, whether it’s new or used. Independent organizations like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway safety (IIHS) conduct crash tests to simulate common accidents and measure a vehicle's ability to protect its occupants. These ratings can help you make informed decisions about vehicle safety, especially if you’re worried about choosing and purchasing a used car.

What is an automotive safety rating?

Automotive safety ratings are scores or ratings assigned to vehicles by independent agencies based on their performance in crash tests. These tests simulate common accidents to measure a vehicle's ability to protect its occupants.

The organizations use different criteria and tests, but the goal is the same: to provide you with information to help you make informed decisions about vehicle safety.

What factors influence automotive safety ratings?

Here are some standard factors:

  • Crash tests, such as front and side crash tests and rollover tests

  • Accident avoidance, such as automatic emergency braking (AEB) and lane departure warning

  • Safety features like airbags, seat belts, and electronic stability control (ESC)

  • Vehicle design

  • Rollover resistance

  • Roof strength

  • Rear-impact protection

  • Rear blind zones

How do automotive safety ratings work?

NHTSA tests include front, side, and rollover crashes as part of the organization’s 5-Star Safety Ratings program. Vehicles are then given a safety rating from one star (least safe) to five stars (most safe), based on their performance in the tests.

The IIHS administers a series of four crash tests:

  • Driver-side small overlap front: Evaluates how well the vehicle can protect the driver when a crash occurs on the left side of the vehicle's front end.

  • Moderate overlap front: Assesses how well a vehicle can protect the driver and passengers in a frontal collision that involves the full width of the vehicle.

  • Passenger-side small overlap side: Evaluates how well the vehicle can protect the front passenger during a crash on the right side of the vehicle's front end.

  • Side impact: Assesses how well a vehicle can protect occupants in a side-impact collision, typically involving a simulated collision with another vehicle or object impacting the vehicle's side.

Until recently, the IIHS also performed head restraint and seats tests and roof strength tests. While the organization no longer conducts these tests, they still list vehicle ratings for these tests on their website.

After testing, the vehicles receive scores based on their performance. The scores are then used to determine the vehicle's safety ratings. The highest safety rating awarded by the IIHS is the Top Safety Pick+ rating. Earning the Top Safety Pick+ rating is a significant achievement for a vehicle because it indicates exceptional safety features and crash protection.

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What should I consider when researching automotive safety ratings?

If you’re looking to purchase a preowned vehicle, knowing how to find—and interpret—safety ratings is crucial. If you plan to purchase a used vehicle from a dealership, the dealership will likely list the vehicle’s safety ratings in the window sticker. Private party sellers often don’t share this information, so you’ll need to do some online research.

Additionally, here are factors to keep in mind as you compare vehicles:

Vehicle type

Vehicle type can affect crash tests. For example, a two-door economy car will be tested differently than an extended cab pickup truck or an SUV.

Model year

Safety ratings can also vary significantly between model years. This is a key reason why you should do extensive research when looking at used cars, as opposed to buying a vehicle based solely on its make, model, or reputation.

Rating organization

It's important to understand which organization provided the safety rating and the specific tests they used to assess the vehicle's safety. Different organizations have different criteria and tests.

Crash test ratings

Look for a vehicle with high ratings in crash tests across the board, including front, side, rollover tests, and other tests we've described earlier.

Safety features

Consider the safety features available on the vehicle, such as airbags, seat belts, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

Front crash prevention systems

According to the IIHS, front crash prevention systems can reduce rear-end crashes by 40 percent. Check if the car has any of these systems. Examples of front crash prevention systems include automatic emergency braking (AEB) and forward collision warning (FCW) systems.

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Safety ratings—A smart bet for car buyers

When you check the safety ratings before you buy a car, you can be more confident you’re choosing a vehicle equipped to help protect you and your passengers in the event of a crash.

Top three ways to research safety ratings:

  • Window sticker: When researching vehicles at dealerships, check the window sticker for a quick overview of the vehicle's safety ratings.

  • NHTSA and IIHS: Visit the NHTSA and IIHS websites for detailed information on crash test ratings and safety features.

  • Model years: Compare safety ratings across different model years so you aren’t purchasing on reputation alone.

Overall, there are many benefits to checking the automotive safety ratings before you buy a car. These ratings can help you choose a safe vehicle that will protect you and your passengers, and they may also save you money on your car insurance premiums.

Why insurance and safety ratings matter

Auto insurance is a critical safety net for financial and legal protection while driving. It can cover vehicle repair costs and liability expenses in accidents, meeting legal requirements. This peace of mind allows you to focus on safe driving.

Similarly, safety ratings are essential for assessing a vehicle's safety performance. Just as insurance safeguards you on the road, safety ratings help you choose a safer vehicle upfront. They provide valuable insights into how well a vehicle protects you in accidents. Combining both insurance and safety ratings can help you achieve comprehensive safety on the road.

Related links

Driving a vehicle with strong safety ratings can help provide peace of mind, but accidents can still happen. These defensive driving tips can help make you a safer driver. 

The general information in this blog is for informational or entertainment purposes only. View our blog disclaimer.

*Data accuracy is subject to this article's publication date.