Summer is the biggest season for road trips and vacations. Millions of drivers and passengers will be out on the roads during these months, especially during national holidays, like the 4th of July. Recently, however, many consumers are wondering if cars are as safe as the ratings say.
The star rating system set by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) give car buyers a general idea about the safety of each car make and model. But there are some big gaps in the rating systems. Most Americans don’t know that some cars aren’t as secure as their positive ratings report. Current standard ratings don’t accurately represent real-life risk.
First, let’s look at how the current safety ratings and crash testing works. Then, we will discuss the shortcomings of these standards. Finally, we provide some practical advice to anyone shopping for a safe vehicle.
Importance of Safety Ratings for Cars
In recent years, the number of serious car accidents has varied between 125,000 and 130,000 crashes per year in Pennsylvania. The percentage of passenger injuries and fatalities involved in those collisions has stayed roughly the same too. Of course, many factors impact these statistics – speed, the use of seatbelts and car seats, dangerous driving conditions, distractions and driving under the influence. Yet, the fact remains that the safety systems of the car you’re in at the time of an accident can save your life.
The body of a vehicle and incorporated protective features determine how well it can protect the driver and passengers inside. The only way for consumers to understand and compare the quality of these factors, however, is through safety ratings. Both the NHTSA and the IIHS perform impact testing to verify the security of different car makes and models.
NHTSA Vehicle Crash Ratings
Cars are scored according to a scale; five stars is the highest rating. Since 2010, the NHTSA’s testing process has been more stringent and provides more information. They now calculate more dummy data, factors related to injuries, and variance in the size of passengers. Plus, the rating system compares car models with each other; in order to receive a 5-star safety rating, a vehicle must outperform others.
Watch how some 2019 SUV models performed in NHTSA crash tests.
This test involves the car accelerating directly into a solid barrier at a speed of 35 mph. The entire width of the car is affected by this type of impact. Two crash test dummies in the front seat track the forces affecting their head, neck, chest and legs. Safety systems, including seat belts and air bags, are also analyzed.
The side-impact crash test checks the damage caused when a car is hit on the left side by a light-weight automobile going 38.5 mph. This demonstrates what would happen if the car were struck in an intersection. Two crash test dummies in the left-side front and rear seats estimate the risk of injury to the head, chest, abdomen and pelvis.
IIHS Vehicle Crash Ratings
The IIHS applies a four-tiered rating scale: poor, marginal, acceptable, and good.
Watch how some 2019 truck models performed in IIHS crash tests.
There are two types of IIHS overlap testing for frontal impact crashes. Both analyze the effects of two cars of similar weight and type crash head-on at 40 mph. One tests the damage caused when 40% of the vehicle’s width is involved; the other involves just 25% of it. This puts different types of forces on occupants of the vehicle and challenges some standard safety belts and airbag systems.
This process differs from tests done by the NHTSA. The car causing the impact is heavier and higher to simulate what would happen in a crash with an SUV or truck. Data reports the risk of injury to the head, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis and legs. Crash test dummies representing children and small women are used, in addition to average-sized male dummies.
Physical damage and injuries caused by rear-end collisions are estimated by the IIHS. The focus of this phase is to verify the effectiveness of the headrest. This component is crucial in preventing head, back and neck trauma, as well as whiplash injuries. Testing simulates an automobile being hit from behind by a car of the same weight moving at 20 mph.
Do Ratings Accurately Represent Vehicle Safety?
Standard crash tests and ratings are simply a way to measure performance for a certain set of factors. They give us a way to compare different cars. But they don’t test for everything.
Passenger Body Type
Most tests measure the effects of a crash on a dummy with the height and weight of an average male. Therefore, ratings don’t accurately represent the risk of injury or death for children, smaller or larger adults.
Regular crash tests don’t estimate damage or injury from collisions involving cars of different weights and heights. Mismatched accidents between light and heavy cars or small and large ones aren’t analyzed.
They also don’t provide safety data about different vehicle types, such as compact car vs. truck or minivan vs. SUV. This could potentially provide important information because unequal bumper height significantly changes the point of impact. For example, if a truck slams into a sports car, the bumper delivers force to a weaker area of the car.
Choosing a Safe Vehicle
When looking to buy the safest vehicle, select a model with good front and side impact ratings in its class. It’s helpful to review the ratings given by both the NHTSA and the IIHS, as the tests they perform are different.