There’s no shortage of car commercials out there. Not even close. What’s more, almost all of these manufacturers boast an “IIHS Top Safety Pick” or “NHTSA 5-Star Rating.” So…what do you do with that kind of information. Sure, we all understand that they’re saying their vehicles are safe, but how do we really know what that means? Who is testing these cars? Who gives these ratings? How does a vehicle earn 5 stars or a safety pick award? These are all legitimate questions to be asking. Let’s clear this confusion up.


NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

The NHTSA is a government organization that tests and rates vehicles on a 1-5 star basis. The rating is determined through a number of controlled experiments and situations that the new car will undergo.

  • Frontal Test: Measures the possibility of injury upon frontal collision at 35 mph
  • Side Tests: The vehicle is impacted at 38.5 mph by a 3,000 lb car on each side, as well as collision into a pole at 20 mph
  • Rollover: This mathematical formula measures width and center of gravity to determine the risk of rollover in an accident


IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

This nonprofit group, founded by insurance companies, measures the safety of a vehicle on a different scale. Poor, Marginal, Acceptable, and Good represent the hierarchy of safety potential.

  • Small-Overlap Front: 25% of the car impacts a barrier at 40 mph
  • Moderate-Overlap Front: a larger portion impacts at 40 mph
  • Side Test: an object hits the car at 31 mph on the side
  • Roof Strength: Pressure from a metal plate is applied to the roof to test collapse
  • Head-Restraints-and-Seats: Measures impact to head and neck of driver upon collision
  • Safety and Alert Systems Tests


Both the IIHS and NHTSA work to bring you a variety of safety examinations on vehicles. These tests can indicate the safety of the vehicle that you may be purchasing, and are worth taking into account. Hopefully the next time you see those commercials with the crash test lingo spewed about, you’ll have a better grasp of what’s going on and how much weight you choose to place on the given scores.

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