Guide to NHTSA and IIHS Crash Test Safety Ratings

Safety Ratings


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Photo Credit: IIHS
If you’re researching new cars, safety ratings and crash tests are likely to factor into your decision making. When you start out your search, there are two well-known sources of crash test ratings: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The both provide valuable information but their testing and scoring methods are different.

NHTSA 5-Star Rating System (New Car Assessment Program)

NHTSA dates back to 1966. That’s the year President Lyndon Johnson signed two bills that led to the creation of two government auto safety regulatory agencies. Three years later, they merged to form the NHTSA.

The purpose of the agency then remains the same to this day: to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity.” So minimizing deaths and injuries is its sole motivation.

The agency uses a 5-Star Safety Rating system. The more stars the better. Currently, it scores models over three safety areas: front impact, side impact, and rollover propensity. Under each category are a series of specific test ratings that show how the model does in a particular area.

You’ll find NHTSA rating safety stickers on new vehicles.

IIHS Top Safety Pick +

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was founded in 1959 by three major insurance associations representing 80 percent of the U.S. auto insurance market. So right off the top, the main difference from the NHTSA in that it’s not a government agency. It’s concerned with safety, but also reducing insurance claim costs.
It uses a more complex form of organizing test results and rankings of vehicles. Basically, it rates crashworthiness on four levels; good, fair, marginal or poor. High performers are awarded a Top Safety Pick or a Top Safety Pick + rating.

NHTSA vs IIHS

The two differ in more than just where they get their funding and rating systems. For one, NHTSA tests how prone a vehicle is to a rollover, while IIHS looks a roof strength. Overall, the IIHS does currently offer testing in more areas that include evaluating headlights and automatic braking systems. But updates are coming to NHTSA’s 5-Star system soon.

NHSTA Rating Updates

Changes coming to the government’s revamped 5-Star Safety system will make NHTSA’s testing more comprehensive. Planned changes include adding a half-star increment to the rating system, adding headlight tests as well evaluating forward warning collision and pedestrian protection systems. It will also add a new side ‘pole’ crash tests and enhance tests for rearview occupants. New and improved crash test dummies are also in store. You can read more about the coming changes starting with 2019 model year vehicles here.

When you’re buying a new car, look at both sites. It doesn’t hurt to get two points of views. Car Pro Show host Jerry Reynolds personally prefers NHTSA, since IIHs represents the insurance industry. That said, IIHS does some good work along with NHTSA so we’d suggest checking out both crash test ratings.
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I realize this 2017 article is somewhat dated, but it does contain an intriguing reference to NHTSA's "coming changes starting with 2019 model year vehicles." The link no longer connects to a related article, and google didn't find me anything relevant. Did the changes actually take place? Or did they get postponed/cancelled? And if they did go into place, do you have a reference to what actually got updated?
Amy P.
Hi and thanks for your comment! You can find the latest information about NHTSA's rating system here:

https://www.nhtsa.gov/sites/nhtsa.dot.gov/files/documents/13000a-b-purchasingwithsafetyinmind_brochure_042817_v1a_tag.pdf

We'll update this article soon as well.

Best,
Amy