There’s no way to test for every potential risk out there, but a crash test rating is a great way to learn about the potential safety of your next vehicle.

You’ve likely seen a reference to a vehicle’s crash test rating when car shopping. What does that mean? How is it assigned? A little background may help you be a smarter shopper.

Rating Agencies

There are two main bodies that do crash testing in the United States. One is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the other is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). NHTSA is a government body created as part of the Highway Safety Act of 1970, while the IIHS is an independent, nonprofit organization that’s supported by automotive insurance companies. Each agency performs different tests and has their own ratings scores.

NHTSA

NHTSA uses a five-star system, with five stars being the best. They test for overall crashworthiness, frontal-crash, side-crash, and rollover. For taller vehicles like SUVs, rollover can happen more easily.

The ads that feature crash test dummies crashing into a fixed barrier demonstrate how NHTSA tests and scores vehicles. For frontal-crash tests, the car is driven into a fixed barrier at 35 mph, while for side-impact, a moving wall is slammed into the car at 38.5 mph. The dummies are meant to represent an averaged-sized adult male and a small-sized adult female.

On the NHTSA scale, the stars are meant to represent the risk of injury as compared to average, with five stars meaning the risk is much less than average.

IIHS

The IIHS performs small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests as well as ratings for front-crash prevention. Ratings are listed as good, acceptable, marginal, or poor for the five crash tests. They rate front-crash prevention technology as basic, advanced, or superior. Vehicles that score high enough and meet certain criteria for front-crash prevention can score Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ ratings.

Find and Compare Ratings

Various vehicle types have different results, so it’s a good idea to compare the safety and crash test ratings before purchasing a vehicle. Both NHTSA and IIHS post individual model’s crash test ratings online.

Safety is of the utmost importance when driving, especially if you’re shopping for a teenager.

There’s no way to test for every potential risk out there, but a crash test rating is a great way to learn about the potential safety of your next vehicle.

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About the AuthorTim Healey

Tim Healey is a writer and reporter specializing in covering the automotive industry and reviewing new cars. He also has experience covering sports in a past journalistic life. The Chicago-based journalist loves cars, sports, and music, and can write passionately and knowledgeably about all three topics.