Crash Test Safety Ratings

Jodee Redmond
crash test dummies

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) 5-Star Safety Ratings System gives buyers information about the crash and rollover protection a vehicle can be expected to provide in a frontal, side, or rollover accidents. You can find new cars' safety ratings posted on SaferCar.gov. This information is also listed on the vehicle's Monroney label (a window sticker that must be displayed on all new cars).

Categories of the 5-Star Ratings System

A car or truck is rated in the following categories as part of the safety testing process:

  • Frontal Impact
  • Side Impact
  • Rear Impact
  • Rollover

The highest rating that a vehicle can be given is five stars. For maximum safety, look for one that has received a five-star rating in all of the categories.

How Safety Testing Works

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the government agency that conducts vehicle safety testing.

Frontal Impact Testing

During a frontal impact test, the vehicle is propelled straight ahead into a concrete barrier at a speed of 35 miles per hour (mph). The test is conducted in this way to simulate an accident where a car moving at that speed hits another one moving at 35 mph.

Side Impact Testing

During a side impact testing procedure, a sled weighing in at just over 3,000 lbs is run into the side portion of the vehicle being tested. The sled is outfitted with a bumper-type device and the tires on the sled are placed at an angle.

This test is made to simulate what happens when a car is sideswiped by another vehicle while going through an intersection. Again, an accident where the vehicles are moving at 35 mph is simulated during the test.

Crash Test Dummies

Before the collision is simulated, crash test dummies painted with different colors are placed in the test vehicle. The paint colors are placed on parts of the body that are most likely to be impacted during an accident. The face, skull, and knees are all painted different colors.

The Crash Test

The crash test dummies are placed in the vehicle and it is rigged up for the crash test. Various instruments are placed in the car and hooked up. Extra weight is added to the vehicle so that researchers will have test results similar to that of a fully-loaded vehicle being involved in an accident. One of the sensors used in the test measures the speed the car is traveling at shortly before the moment of impact.

Cameras are used to record the crash, including ones placed under the vehicle. For a frontal impact crash test, the car is moved back from the barrier and positioned to crash into it. A pulley system pulls the vehicle down a runway toward it. The car hits the barrier at a measured rate of 35 mph and less than one second later, the car stops moving.

After the Crash

In a frontal collision, researchers are looking to see whether the front portion of the vehicle was crushed during the accident. This is actually a good sign if it happens, since it means the vehicle is able to absorb the kinetic energy released as a result of the crash and stop it.

What the 5-Star Ratings System Means

The NHTSA assigns a rating to the vehicle after each safety test. The 5-Star Safety Rating can be interpreted as follows:

  • Five Stars: Risk of injury is much less than average
  • Four Stars: Risk of injury is less than average to average
  • Three Stars: Risk of injury is average to greater than average
  • Two Stars: Risk of injury is greater than average
  • One Star: Risk of injury is much greater than average

Cars with Best and Worst Safety Ratings

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released its list of Top Safety Picks for 2012. The list includes vehicles in several classes, including the following:

  • Toyota Tundra
  • Dodge Grand Caravan
  • Buick Enclave
  • Lexus RX
  • Ford Explorer
  • Buick Regal
  • Subaru Legacy
  • Kia Forte
  • Ford Fiesta

Consumer Reports released its list of the worst vehicles for overall safety for 2010. The models with the worst safety scores were:

  • Chevrolet Aveo Sedan
  • Chevrolet Colorado
  • GMC Canyon
  • Hyundai Accent
  • Kia Rio
  • Scion tC
  • Dodge Dakota

Look at the Safety Rating Before You Buy

Before buying a new car, make a point of checking the vehicle's 5-Star Safety Rating. You may always try to drive safely, but your life, and the lives of your family members, may depend on the choice you make. You will want to make sure you choose a car that is well designed and can provide a high level of protection in an accident.

Crash Test Safety Ratings