Understanding Car Safety Ratings

woman and child getting into car

When it’s time to buy a new car, drivers have different ideas about what they want. From color to horsepower to sound systems, each driver has his or her own vision of what car is right.

However, when it comes to buying a new car, the one area that drivers should consider first, is safety.

“We spend a lot of time in our cars; the average commute time in the U.S. is more than 25 minutes, and the average vehicle is driven over 13,000 miles per year,” says Nino Tarantino, CEO of Octo Telematics, which collects driving data. “When you consider automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of five and 34, safety should be top of mind.”

Who conducts car safety tests

Consumers typically turn to car safety ratings to find out how the cars on their wish list have fared in accidents. Both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conduct crash testing, but neither test all new cars. So you may have to be a bit more diligent in your research if you are considering a car that’s not a high-volume seller.

How the NHTSA and IIHS rate car safety

Tarantino says it’s also important to know exactly what you’re looking at before you start comparing results. While both agencies conduct tests related to passenger injury, they use different tests and ratings systems.

“The key difference is in the rating system and the type and number of tests,” he says. “NHTSA ratings are based on a five-star system, where the higher the number of stars, the less likely for injury. IIHS ratings are based on four ratings: good, acceptable, marginal or poor.”

The NHTSA tests for three types of crashes – front collision, side impact and simulated rollover. But the IIHS conducts five tests – small overlap and moderate front tests, a side test, roof strength test and overhead restraint and seat test.

The IIHS tests for passenger-side crashes to help ensure that everyone in the car is safe. “The improvements in occupant protection have been amazing over the past decades,” says Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS. “All automakers now recognize the important role of safety in consumer choice, and they are increasingly receptive to working with our engineers to understand the next steps in keeping people from harm in motor vehicle crashes and to make real changes in their vehicle designs.”

Since both agencies conduct different tests, Tarantino says, it’s best to check ratings from both sites as well as to read up on the vehicle in the Kelley Blue Book.

“The best thing to do is to consider all sources of safety information, cross-compare and find the consistent pros and cons to see how they fit into your personal needs and requirements,” he advises. “When it comes to personal safety, it’s best to mitigate risk as much as possible.”

How to use car safety ratings

You can look to NHTSA and IIHS ratings to make sure you’re considering cars that can provide protection in all types of crashes. That means rollover accidents, rear-end crashes, side crashes and head-on collisions.

When car shopping make sure to keep car safety ratings in mind. Below are the top safest cars rated by IIHS.

IIHS top safest cars

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) chose the following vehicles, among others, as its top safety picks based on extensive testing and evaluation:

Safest small cars:

  • Hyundai Elantra
  • Honda Insight
  • Kia Forte
  • Kia Niro

Safest midsize cars:

  • Hyundai Sonata
  • Kia Optima
  • Mazda 6
  • Subaru Legacy

Safest large luxury cars:

  • Audi A6
  • BMW 5 series
  • Genesis G70
  • Lincoln Continental
  • Mercedes-Benz E-class sedan

Safest SUVs

  • Hyundai Palisade
  • Hyundai Santa Fe
  • Kia Sorento
  • Mazda CX-9

Other ways to measure how safe your car may be on the road or in crash situations include size, weight and design.

Car Size: The smaller the car is, the less likely other drivers are to see it on the road. Smaller cars also offer less protection because there’s less car structure to absorb the impact of a crash, which increases the chances of injury in an accident.

Car Weight: A small car is usually also a light car. In an accident environment, the car experiences a higher crash force, especially when hit by a larger, heavier vehicle.

Car Design: Good structure is essential for a safer car. A passenger compartment with crumple zones designed to absorb much of the impact or force of a crash is crucial. It’s important to have a roof structure that won’t collapse in a rollover accident, too.

Using safety ratings as your guide for buying a new car can make sure that you enjoy that car for years to come. Car safety features like seat belts and air bags can help minimize injuries in a crash and these and many of the new safety features can help you save money on your insurance. See how Nationwide Insurance can help protect you and your new car — and all the passengers who ride in it.