Cars and Safety: Where They Are Tested and What They’re Tested For

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Even with government-required airbags, live-saving seatbelts, and child safety seats, driving continues to be dangerous. 

CARS Protection Plus reports that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there was a projected increase of over 18% in motor vehicle fatalities compared to the previous year.

Faster driving and reckless driving habits are mostly to blame, but there are still stringent protocols related to car safety to prevent an untold number of car accidents every year.

So, what exactly are cars tested for when it comes to safety? The good news: a lot. 

Safety Tests

The widest-known approach to car safety was established in 1970 by the NHTSA through the Highway Safety Act. The organization’s 5-Star Safety Ratings program is still very much a force in the auto industry.

It conducts side, rollover, and frontal crash tests on vehicles since they reflect the most common car accidents on America’s roads.

The tests use dummies that reflect different sizes and genders of drivers and passengers, as well as an array of speeds and crashes between different types, sizes, and numbers of vehicles.

Different types of barriers are included as well, and injuries to different parts of the body are evaluated.

There are other independent testing bodies as well. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), for example, conducts numerous crash tests, including three different types of frontal tests, side crash tests, tests of roof strength, and tests on head restraints and seats.

There are even tests that evaluate headlights and stopping capabilities. 

Such tests are used on both new and used cars, but not every single vehicle model is tested by the NHSTA and IIHS. Usually, the testing bodies need to purchase the vehicles used for tests themselves, so they won’t typically buy expensive models, such as Porsches. 

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While both organizations conduct similar tests are both well-respected, there are differences. NHTSA has been testing cars since 1978 and recommends new safety technologies. It’s a federal agency that conducts up to 125 tests a year, usually on the most popular, high-volume car models.

The IIHS is a nonprofit that is backed by the insurance industry and tests about 100 new cars annually. While the NHTSA goes with a star rating, with 5 stars considered the best, the IIHS follows a rating scale that goes from poor and marginal to acceptable and good.

Its highest rating is Top Safety Pick+, which means a car received a “good” rating across its six tests. Like the NHTSA, the IIHS also tests the most frequently purchased cars or those manufactured in the highest volumes. 

How to Check a Safety Rating 

Curious about how your car’s safety ranks? The NHTSA maintains a database, and all you need to do is enter your vehicle’s make, year, and model. Find your vehicle’s listing and you will get a comprehensive review of how it performed in a variety of tests. 

The IIHS also has a safety database, and it is your next stop if your car doesn’t appear on the NHTSA database. You can search the IIHS database through the link on its homepage.

The results page is like the NHTSA’s, but you may find the results from not just crash tests, but the IIHS’ tests on headlights or safety equipment. By entering your car’s year, make, and model, you can also see if your car is a Top Safety Pick winner.