Your Guide To Crash Testing And Car Safety Ratings

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How car crash tests are done in the US to identify our safest cars.

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Is there really such a thing as the safest car in the world? Anytime you get behind the wheel, you are taking a risk, but automakers, and safety agencies, are constantly striving to improve your odds. However, the way these institutes calculate vehicle safety ratings and crashworthiness can be tricky. Nevertheless, it's something you need to know to help ensure that you buy from the safest car brands when shopping for yourself or your loved ones.

The yearly death rate of people in traffic accidents today in the US averages around 40,000, so we'll look at the tests done by the two most well-known safety bodies in the US, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and how their car-safety ratings should influence your buying decision. The third notable body is the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates some vehicle crashes and makes transportation safety recommendations.

Car Crash Test freepik.com

The Types of Crash and Safety Tests

Vehicle safety is measured both in terms of cars' safety features and crash-test ratings. The performance of the vehicle structure, airbags, and other safety features are evaluated in this type of destructive crash testing, as well as in terms of crash compatibility between car types. But, how are cars tested for safety?

Here are the main areas covered by safety evaluations and crash-testing procedures:

  • Frontal-impact tests. Both the NHTSA and IIHS perform frontal-impact crash tests against a barrier to measure the forces on crash-test dummies. There are various test types, like offset moderate-overlap tests and small-overlap tests, to determine how a car's structure absorbs an impact when struck on only one side of the body.
  • Side-impact tests. These tests take various forms as well. Vehicles are hit from the side by a weighted crash trolley to determine side-impact protection, or subjected to sideways pole-impact tests in pole to simulate real-life interactions.
  • Rollover tests. Vehicles are propelled sideways to test their propensity for rolling over.
  • Roof-strength tests. During these tests, a machine crushes the roof structure to determine how much weight is required before it fails. A minimum standard has to be met.
  • Headrest tests. Seats are mounted on a rail and a procedure called sled testing is used to determine the headrests' ability to prevent neck injuries.
  • Headlight tests. Headlights are tested and graded, both the standard-fit headlights and optional ones.
  • Safety-equipment tests. The strength and ease of use of other safety equipment such as child seats and restraints are evaluated.
  • Driver-assistance features. The performance of driver-assistance features such as automated braking, pedestrian and cyclist detection, and blind-spot warning are evaluated.
  • LATCH/Child Seat Safety. The ease with which child car seats can be anchored may also be evaluated, which is important in family-oriented vehicles. Additionally, authorities are also responsible for the testing and inspection of child car seats to ensure they meet safety standards.

It is worth noting that not all vehicles sold are put through comprehensive crash or safety evaluations. Due to their high asking prices, low sales volumes, or limited edition production, most supercars, hypercars, and ultra-luxury vehicles are spared the crash test process. This doesn't mean these cars are not safe, however; excellent build quality and comprehensive safety suites are hallmarks of these segments.

Frontal-impact Tests IIHS
Side-impact Tests NHTSA
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IIHS Crash Tests and Safety Ratings

An IIHS safety rating is given to popular vehicles that sell well. Following an IIHS crash test, a vehicle can be rated as Poor, Marginal, Acceptable, or Good in various categories, and may be eligible for acclaimed Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ awards.

In order to be awarded a Top Safety Pick award, a vehicle must score Good in all front- and side-impact tests, roof-strength tests, headrest tests, and crash-prevention tests, Advanced or Superior in crash-prevention tests, and Good or Acceptable in optional headlight tests. To achieve Top Safety Pick+ standards, headlights scoring Good or Acceptable must be standard on all models.

Safest Car IIHS

NHTSA Safety Ratings

Cars are given star ratings, with a 5-star safety rating being the highest of the NHTSA's safety ratings. The more stars a car scores in a test, the safer it is. The institute tests new, popular, and/or substantially revised cars every year. It performs frontal, side, and rollover tests, and also evaluates driver-assistance and safety technologies, such as seatbelts and tire-pressure monitoring systems. It prioritizes its research based on the reduction of crashes, injuries, and fatalities and also has an Office of Behavioral Safety Research that aims to curb unsafe driving behavior.

Crash Testing Euro NCAP

Car Safety Features

A car that has scored well with either authority should be safe to buy and would include most, if not all of the most important modern safety features and driver-assistance systems that affect a car's safety ranking. Safety features can be explained as follows:

Passive Safety Features

These features include standard systems that don't engage unless needed, meaning that they only come into action in the event of an accident to reduce damage and mitigate the risk of injury. These include:

Active Safety Features

As the name implies, these features are designed to prevent an accident from happening. They remain active, constantly monitoring your vehicle and its surroundings; they are often electronic systems controlled by computer. Although the list of available active safety features keeps growing as technology advances, the following are most commonly added, or available, to modern vehicles:

  • Anti-lock brakes and stability control
  • A backup camera
  • Tire-pressure monitoring
  • Driver-assistance features such as forward-collision, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and blind-spot monitoring.
  • Advanced driver-assistance features take it one step further, and make use of cameras, GPS, radars, lidar systems, and a degree of autonomy to decide when to activate. These systems include adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, automatic emergency braking, traffic sign recognition, and driver alert systems.

The Safest Cars to Buy on a Tight Budget

According to a study by the IIHS and Consumer Reports, many older vehicles have achieved good crash-test results, making these affordable used cars a safe bet, of which we name only a few examples in every class.

  • All these cars can be had for around $10,000 or even less second-hand:
  • Small cars. Some of the safest small cars include the 2014 or newer Mazda 3, 2012-2015 Honda Civic Sedan, or 2014 or newer Toyota Prius.
  • Mid-size cars. The 2013 or newer Subaru Outback/Legacy, 2012 or newer Toyota Camry, and 2012 or newer Honda Accord.
  • Large cars. The 2012 or newer Ford Taurus.
  • Small SUVs. Several older small SUVs' safety ratings are good, such as the 2012 or newer Hyundai Tucson or the 2013 or newer Toyota RAV4.
  • Mid-size SUVs. Mid-size SUV models such as the 2009-2015 Toyota Venza or the 2008 or newer Toyota Highlander.
  • Minivans. The 2011-2014 Toyota Sienna.

For more advice on other things to consider when looking for the right car for you, read our guide here.

Conclusion

There is no need to settle for an unsafe car, even on a budget. Advanced virtual computer models created by automakers mean modern cars are designed safe right from the drawing board. Peruse the websites of the NHTSA and IIHS to find the vehicles with the best crash ratings and take note of the older vehicles that score well, if you want to buy your child their first car. Safety is no longer an expensive optional extra and everyone now has access to cars that offer excellent performance to both avoid and survive an accident.

FAQs

What is the safest car in the world?

This is a difficult question to answer since all vehicles are not available everywhere and different countries' safety bodies rate cars differently. However, in the USA, two brands have stood out over the past two years, namely Mazda and Volvo. In 2020, Mazda achieved more Top Safety Pick+ awards from the IIHS than any other automaker. In 2021, Volvo was the top-performing brand with no fewer than 15 Top Safety Pick+ awards.

How much safer is a new car in an accident than an old one?

Old cars are very unsafe compared to new ones. A large 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air was compared to a 2009 Chevy Malibu for the IIHS's 50th anniversary and the Bel Air virtually disintegrated as its structure collapsed in testing, while the Malibu's survival space remained completely intact. Regardless of what people might believe, in the contest of old versus new, older car designs lacking modern safety features are unsafe, even at low speed, despite their size and weight.

What does the NHTSA’s changed star rating system from 2010 onward mean?

Since 2010, the NHTSA has amended its rating scale to take into account recommended advanced safety features in vehicles as part of the overall rating. This means that cars that scored highly on the old scale may receive a lower star score on the new scale. However, it does not necessarily mean that a car that achieved five stars under the old scale is unsafe, but just that it is no longer good enough to get five stars under modern standards.

Why can I not find any rear-impact crash ratings?

Aside from the simulated headrest tests (sled testing), no rear-impact crash tests are performed on car bodies by either the IIHS or NHTSA. The NHTSA has noted that federal funding is limited and that it, therefore, focuses its attention on the types of crashes that cause the most fatalities and serious injuries in the USA. Most cars crashing in the US are involved in either frontal or side impacts.

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