Vehicle Safety Ratings

How to better understand car safety ratings

We see it advertised everywhere: “[Car-X] has been rewarded a five-star safety rating for a sixth year in a row.”  It sounds great, but what does this mean? Who determines this ranking? How are the tests conducted? Is a five-star safety rating better than a Top Safety Pick Award?

To help answers these questions and gain a better understanding of the safety rating systems that exist today, read ahead.

Who am I trusting to rank my car?

The two main providers of safety testing are the National Highway Testing Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).  Although their ranking systems vary slightly, they are both considered reliable sources that thoroughly measure security via extensive testing methods.


The aforementioned “five-star safety rating” is an example of a NHTSA ranking, with five being the highest possible score. This U.S. federal government organization performs tests for crashworthiness based on frontal impact and side-impact, along with a rollover rating.

The frontal test measures the probability of driver or passenger injury after a vehicle crashes into a static barricade at roughly 50 km/h.

The side-impact assessment, involves two tests. In the first one, the car is hit from the side by a dummy vehicle traveling at a similar speed. The other test measures a driver’s likelihood of injury after making impact with a pole.

Once these tests have concluded, the NHTSA will assess a car rollover rating before providing an overall star level.


The IIHS is a non-profit group funded by various insurance companies. Instead of the star ranking system, they classify their ratings in four ways; Poor, Marginal, Acceptable and Good, with Good being the highest. Vehicles are then put through five tests to determine their overall safety.

The small-overlap and moderate-overlap front test measure a car’s impact after hitting a barrier at different areas of the frontal region.

A side test measures the impact after contacting a large barrier at 50 km/h, whereas a roof-strength test indicates the likelihood of collapsing during a rollover.

The final experiment (the head-restraints-and-seats test), considers the level of force delivered to a driver’s neck and head during a collision.

Once these tests are concluded, the scores are aggregated and given a final ranking. Vehicles with a “Top Safety Pick Award+” and “Top Safety Pick Award” exhibit exceptional safety.

Do I want a “Five Star” or a “Top Safety Pick Award+?”

The answer is both. The in-depth research and testing the NTHSA and IIHS conduct reassure drivers and passengers that their safety is prioritized. As these results are made publicly available on their websites, users should reference both ranking systems when they’re considering buying a new car.

At the end of the day, you can’t put a price on safety.