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What you should know about crash test ratings and car safety ratings



When you shop for a new or used car, you will likely consider a vehicle’s safety rating before making your final purchase. An accident can happen at any time. And these ratings help predict how well you’ll be protected in the event of a crash. (The right car insurance can help, too.)

Maybe you’re looking for a car with a five-star safety rating, or one that has been named a TOP SAFETY PICK by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. (See what made the 2021 BEST SECURITY PICKS list.)

Of course, these designations make a vehicle sound like a safe choice. But do you know what they really mean? And have you ever wondered if higher safety ratings lead to lower car insurance rates?

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7;s everything you need to know about vehicle crash tests and car safety ratings.

Who performs vehicle crash tests?

In the United States, two organizations are responsible for collecting and reporting vehicle crash test data: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and that Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Both organizations conduct extensive testing to determine the safety of the vehicles. The difference: NHTSA is an organization run by the federal government, while IIHS is a non-profit organization funded by insurance companies.

How does NHTSA rate vehicle safety?

NHTSA tests most new vehicles and evaluates them based on a five-star safety rating program. The more stars a vehicle gets, the better it performed in the organization’s tests. The goal is to give consumers a simple measure of a vehicle’s crash avoidance, protection and rollover safety. As the organization says, “more stars equal safer cars.”

To determine its car safety rating, NHTSA uses four tests:

  • Frontal crash test: Used to simulate a frontal crash, this test involves crashing a vehicle directly into a fixed barrier at 35 mph. Thus, it represents collisions between two vehicles of the same size.
  • Side barrier crash test: The test simulates an intersection collision, where a vehicle is hit broadside (or T-boned) by another vehicle. During the test, a stopped car is hit with a 3,015-pound moving barrier on the driver’s side at 38.5 mph.
  • Side pillar crash test: To simulate a crash into a telephone pole, a vehicle is angled 75 degrees and pulled into a pole near the driver’s door at 20 km/h.
  • Rolling resistance test: More of a calculation than a crash test, this measurement estimates the likelihood of a vehicle tipping during a sudden turn.

How does the IIHS rate vehicle safety?

The IIHS safety ratings use a slightly different system to rank vehicles. Instead of a star rating, the group measures crash test results as good, acceptable, marginal or poor. While they perform a similar side barrier crash test as the NHTSA, their other tests are different. They include:

  • Frontal overlap crash test: While NHTSA crashes vehicles head-on into a large barrier, the IIHS tests simulate a series of frontal crashes in which only part of the vehicle makes contact with the barrier. In the moderate overlap test, a vehicle traveling at 40 mph crashes into a barrier only 40% of the vehicle’s width, offset on the driver’s side. The group also conducts small overlap tests, where the barrier is only 25% of the vehicle’s width.
  • Roof strength test: This test evaluates occupant safety in the event of a rollover by pushing an angled metal plate into the roof at a slow, constant speed. The force needed to crush the roof is used to calculate the vehicle’s strength-to-weight ratio.
  • Headrest and seat tests: According to the IIHS, “Neck sprains and strains are the most commonly reported injuries in U.S. auto insurance claims.” By testing seats and head restraints, the organization can determine how well a vehicle will protect occupants from injuries such as whiplash. For these tests, the vehicle’s seats are removed and fixed on a movable steel sled. The sled is moved to simulate the rapid acceleration and deceleration forces that occur in an accident.

In addition to crash tests, the IIHS also evaluates systems such as the vehicle’s headlights, front crash protection system and LATCH child seat system.

One thing to note: None of the tests account for a common mismatch in real-world conditions where a smaller vehicle with the highest safety rating collides with or is hit by a larger, heavier one like a pickup truck or SUV.

What does the car safety rating mean?

In both the NHTSA and IIHS rating scales, the definition of high and low performance depends on the specific test performed. But while it will take some research to uncover the exact measurements, the results speak for themselves. According to the IIHS, “a driver of a vehicle rated good in the moderate overlap test is 46% less likely to die in a frontal crash, compared to a driver of a vehicle rated poor.” For left-side crash tests, that number jumps to a staggering 70%.

Generally, a rating of 4 or more NHTSA stars and a “good” or “top” safety rating are recommended by commentators.

What Role Do Crash Test Dummies Play?

When performing crash tests used to determine car safety ratings, it is important to evaluate not only the physical damage to the vehicle, but also the safety of the occupants. That’s what crash test dummies are used for. Not to be confused with the Canadian rock band from the 90s, these life-size test units simulate the damage to a human body during an accident.

They ride along during crash tests and are loaded with sensors to measure stress and strain on different body parts. Here are some things you might not know about these high-tech mannequins:

  • Crash test dummies have an aluminum and steel skeleton and plastic ribs to simulate the human ribcage.
  • A standard doll can cost up to $400,000.
  • The dummy’s joints have been designed to simulate the flexibility of human joints, which stretch and bend.
  • An average crash test dummy can contain up to 80 sensors.
  • In addition to computerized data collection, mannequins are also painted with grease paint to show where their heads impacted the vehicle.
  • Dummies come in a small range of sizes to simulate the impact of a crash on men, women and children.

How do I find my vehicle’s safety rating?

Both NHTSA and that IIHS publish the results of their crash tests online. Just visit their respective websites and search for the make and model year of your vehicle to see its crash test results.

Do crash test ratings affect your car insurance rates?

Although there is no general rule for how much you will save, safer vehicles are often cheaper to insure. At the same time, some insurance companies are raising premiums for cars that have poor safety records and are more susceptible to damage or passengers.

Why are crash tests important?

Today, cars are safer than they have ever been. And vehicle safety technology continues to evolve. Much of this development can be attributed to the work of organizations such as NHTSA and IIHS. These groups have pioneered the use of many common safety features, including seat belts, car seats and airbags.

Want to see how much safer cars have become? Check out this video of a 2009 Chevy Malibu crashing into a 1959 Chevy Bel Air.

As newer safety features emerge and cars become “smarter,” new test categories will likely be added — but they won’t be reflected in ratings yet. In addition, electric vehicles (which are heavier than traditional gas and diesel vehicles) have just been incorporated into the tests.

Protect your haven

From your driver’s seat settings to the position of the steering wheel and your favorite station on the radio, your car is your sanctuary on the road. We want you to feel just as comfortable with your insurance coverage. We tailor your protection and service and give you exactly what you need and nothing you don’t. Contact us today to learn more about car insurance from ERIE.


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