Crash Test Data FAQs

Crash Test Data Explained

If you’re a participant in any social media site, you know that people love to share articles and throw around topics, usually as evidence to prove that they’ve made a smart choice, or are qualified to give advice, but when pressed further, many don’t seem to actually have information beyond the very surface level.
This came up in a parenting group recently. A mom was looking for advice on a new car, and another was sharing everything she loved about her own. This was pretty standard, and why people go to groups to ask. But every time someone shared another car, she kept commenting, “well, the crash test data doesn’t lie, and I want my family in the safest car out there!”

Admirable, obviously. But we also know that most car commercials market safety pretty aggressively, and no one would DE-prioritize safety, and yet, we aren’t all driving the same car.

So someone finally jumped in and said, “so, I know they use dummies, but what do they actually do to figure out who is the safest?”

And I got intrigued, dropped out of the conversation, and did my research.

There are two agencies who do the testing. NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Saftey Administration) and IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) use different tests and ratings, but combined is where you get the real insight into how your car will perform in an accident.

The NHTSA focuses on debuting cars and cars that have had major redesigns, but they test roughly 100-150 cars broken up into seven categories. They look at: front crash, side barrier crash, side pole crash, and rollover resistance. Basically, they’re trying to simulate the most common crash scenarios, varying the speed, the position of the dummies, and the road conditions. They want to see how the car, and more importantly, the dummies, fare. Once they look at the results, they score every vehicle between 1 and 5 stars.

The IIHS tests about 80 vehicles a year (again, with the focus on new models) on two different aspects. Crashworthiness (similar to the NHTSA), but also crash avoidance. They score crashworthiness on a Good, Acceptable, Marginal, Poor scale, and the same scoring system to look at headlights. Then, they look at everything the car has for crash avoidance (emergency braking, etc.) and how those systems actually perform, on a scale of Basic, Advanced and Superior.

And THEN they combine all those scores and give out the “Top Safety Pick” award, which is cars that have a good rating in crashworthiness, advanced or superior in crash avoidance, and a “+” will be added for a good or acceptable headlight score.

SO – all you need to do is search for five star NHTSA cars or “Top Safety Picks” on the IIHS, and you have the safest car, right? Maybe, maybe not, because the good news is that NINETY-NINE percent of vehicles get 4 or 5 stars, and (again, good news) there are a LOT of vehicles out there as a “Top Safety Pick”.

So ultimately, crash test data is great, and it keeps manufacturers working to make sure cars are as safe as can be. But far more important to your safety is how YOU behave as a driver, no matter what car you buy.