New Car Safety Ratings Explained


By Keith Griffin

No one ever plans to be in a car accident, but if one happens, we want to be safe. In fact, a 2012 survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that 65 percent of car buyers said safety was the most important thing to them when deciding which car to buy. There’s just one problem: How do you tell if a car is safe?

When researching a new or used car online, there are two important safety ratings to look for: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s star ratings and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s top picks. While they seem easy to comprehend, they both present complex information that can help you decide which car, truck or SUV is right for you.

Though the 2015 Acura TLX shown here looks wrecked, the space around the driver is preserved, which means the car offers good crash protection. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, commonly known as NHTSA, is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. It pioneered automobile safety ratings globally in 1978, says Gordon Trowbridge, NHTSA’s director of communications. Since then, the European Union and countries around the world have created new car assessment programs, sometimes called by the acronym NCAP.

Trowbridge says NHTSA’s NCAP meets different goals. The first is to provide accurate, reliable information to consumers about the crash protection offered by new or used vehicles they are considering buying. In particular, he says, it allows car shoppers to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of various vehicles when it comes to crash worthiness.

David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says there’s a secondary goal to his organization’s testing (and one Trowbridge says NHTSA also focuses on): getting manufacturers to fix safety flaws identified by the testing. “We know that automakers are paying attention to the tests. They may not score good results when we first initiate a test but we see them make changes that lead to better scores,” Zuby says.

When it comes to rating the cars, NHTSA uses a straightforward star rating system with five stars being the highest rating. You can see the full results at However, NHTSA ratings are split into ratings for vehicles from 2010 and older vehicles, and vehicles from 2011 and newer. What that means, Trowbridge says, is consumers can’t make a direct comparison between 2011 and newer models and those made from 1990 to 2010. Since 2011, NHTSA ratings have included an overall score summarizing the categories of frontal crash, side crash and rollover risk. Trowbridge says the rollover risk test is unique to NHTSA.

IIHS conducts testing that measures how a vehicle responds to small and moderate overlap frontal crashes, side impact crashes, how its roof strength holds up during a simulated rollover and how its seats respond in a rear-end collision. The IIHS Top Safety Pick designation is for cars that have ratings of Good, the highest rating possible, in all categories. However, an Acceptable rating is sufficient for the small overlap front test. According to the IIHS website, the small overlap front test, established in November 2012, measures the simulated impact of a car’s front corner striking another vehicle or something like a utility pole or tree. The IIHS didn’t want to negate Top Safety Picks awarded before 2012, which is why Acceptable ratings are allowed on small overlap front tests.

The 2015 Audi Q5 undergoes small overlap frontal crash testing at IIHS. (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Zuby says the best thing for safety-conscious consumers to do is consult IIHS’ list of Top Safety Picks. Certain vehicles are designated Top Safety Pick + because they have front accident prevention technology. For example, a 2015 Hyundai Genesis gets a Top Safety Pick + only when equipped with front crash prevention technology. Otherwise, it is designated a Top Safety Pick.

NHTSA doesn’t rate vehicles on their accident avoidance technology but will highlight those that have features like lane departure warning and forward collision warning. “Those do not go into the star rating, but you can augment your knowledge,” Trowbridge says.

The NHTSA website also offers detailed information on safety issues for a vehicle such as recalls, safety defect investigations and potential safety complaints. It also includes information on technical service bulletins that manufacturers are required to provide for mechanical or dependability issues. “You get a bunch of additional information about safety and reliability,” Trowbridge adds.

Should vehicles without five stars or Top Safety Pick ratings be avoided? Zuby from the IIHS, says no, but be cautious. “You don’t have to worry a car that is not a Top Safety Pick is fatally flawed,” he advises, but adds this caveat, “When you start going away from the Top Safety Pick list, you have to know where there are Marginal or Poor ratings. Are you willing to trade off to choose those vehicles?”

If you’re shopping solely by the Top Safety Pick list, you may not find a car you like, or one that fits your budget. Zuby says in that case, you should look at the IIHS rating summary pages and look for areas with as much green, which indicates a Good score, as possible.

Trowbridge says one thing worth noting is “more than 90 percent of vehicles are at 4 or 5 stars,” which he says shows manufacturers are responding to his organization’s testing.

Zuby says the NHTSA and IIHS tests are complementary. Pick a vehicle that is a Top Safety Pick as well as rated five stars overall and you can be confident it’s a safe vehicle. “You’re going to get a state-of-the-art vehicle,” he says.

When you’re ready to buy, use the U.S. News Best Price Program for guaranteed savings on your new car. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

More at U.S. News
Find the Right Car for You: Best Car Rankings
August’s Best Lease Deals
On a Budget? These are the Best Cars for the Money