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How Do I Look Up Car Safety Ratings?

By Autolist Staff | October 1, 2018

When you're making a checklist of all the things you want your next vehicle to have, it's likely that a high car safety rating is at or near the top of your list.

While a car's looks and performance may be important, you still want to know how safe the vehicle you buy will keep you and your passengers in the event of a crash. Looking up car safety ratings is a fairly simple process on both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) websites.

Looking Up NHTSA Car Safety Ratings

NHTSA is a governmental agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. NHTSA performs annual crash tests on nearly all new vehicles for each model year via its Five-Star Safety rating program. The tests performed reflect a vehicle's crash protection and rollover safety beyond what the federal government requires of manufacturers by law. The results of these tests are readily accessible on the organization's website NHTSA.gov.

To access vehicle safety ratings for both new and used vehicles, navigate to NHTSA.gov, click on the Ratings tab from the banner at the top, and then enter the year, make and model of the car in question into the search box. Click the magnifying glass icon to initiate the search. Alternatively, you can search the ratings on NHTSA.gov by manufacturer. Choose your vehicle from the search results based on its specifics such as 4WD or 2WD.

You can also simply Google 'NHTSA' and the year, make and model you're interested in, and the appropriate link will appear at the top of the search results.

NHTSA assigns a star rating from one to five stars for each vehicle; one star is the lowest rating, and five stars is the highest. The organization gives an overall safety rating along with separate safety ratings for frontal, front driver side impact and front passenger side impacts. It also lists if there are any recalls for the particular model and any complaints lodged by buyers. Essentially, NHTSA puts cars through four tests, including a frontal crash, a side crash with another vehicle on the road, a crash involving the side of the car crashing into a pole or tree, and a crash that involves a rollover.

Car shoppers can also use NHTSA.gov to compare multiple vehicles at once to see which one outperforms the others when it comes to crashworthiness. Users of the website can also look for vehicles that have NHTSA's recommended driver assisted technologies and have met performance tests for NHTSA, including forward-collision warnings, lane departure warnings, rear-view video systems, and automatic emergency braking.

Looking Up IIHS Car Safety Ratings

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a non-profit organization that receives its funding from insurance associations and insurance companies. Like NHTSA, IIHS conducts a testing program for a select number of vehicles in every model year.

To look up IIHS car safety ratings, navigate to IIHS.org, click the Ratings tab on the home page, and then select the make, model, and vehicle type/size category from the drop-down menus.

Like NHTSA, you can also Google a vehicle's ratings by searching for 'IIHS' plus the year, make and model you're interested in.

IIHS scores its vehicles with ratings of G for "good," A for "acceptable," M for "marginal" and P for "poor." Four areas of crashworthiness are graded in IIHS safety tests, including Moderate Overlap Front, Side, Roof Strength, and Head Restraints and Seats. The color-coded grade assigned is displayed next to the tested component.

IIHS evaluates not only crashworthiness -- which is a measure of how well the vehicle protects the driver and passengers during a potential crash -- but also on crash avoidance and mitigation. This measure evaluates the onboard technology that the vehicle has that prevents crashes or that reduces the severity of crashes. A vehicle receives a score of Basic, Advanced or Superior according to the type of crash-prevention systems it has and the system's performance during IIHS' track tests.

IIHS evaluates each vehicle's headlights, giving them the same Good-Acceptable-Marginal-Poor ratings as its crashworthiness tests.

Finally, IIHS rates how easy it is to use that vehicle's child seat anchor system (known as LATCH), a useful tool for parents who will be installing child seats regularly.

Four different crash tests comprise IIHS ratings. Two of those are offset front crashes designed to simulate most head-on crash occurrences. The third is a side crash involving the crash car being impacted by an SUV, and the fourth is a roof-strength test designed to evaluate how well the car's roof withstands rollover crashes.

Like the NHTSA's website, IIHS.org allows visitors to compare vehicles' safety ratings and features using a special tool. Users can search for vehicles that meet their designated criteria for safety features, including crash avoidance technologies, electronic stability control and side airbags.

Site visitors can also compare insurance losses for vehicles by make and model based on coverage for damage, injuries and theft. Drivers can also find the organization's list of vehicles designated as Top Safety Picks on the site to help them make a short list when deciding on the safest vehicles to meet their needs.

Being listed as a Top Safety Pick Plus is a coveted award in the industry. Top Safety Pick Plus vehicles must score a Good rating in four of the five tests administered by IIHS and at least a rating of Acceptable on test number five. Starting in 2018, the vehicles must also have a headlight rating of at least 'Good.'

NHTSA vs. IIHS Car Safety Ratings: Which is Best?

Although both NHTSA and IIHS safety ratings provide a window into vehicles' safety during potential crashes, the entities test vehicles in different ways. For this reason, it is always a good idea to use the ratings from both the NHTSA and the IIHS prior to making a purchasing decision.

Neither set of ratings is superior to the other when it comes to accuracy. Each organization reveals different safety aspects about the vehicle. Generally consumers should look for a vehicle that has a Five Star safety rating from NHTSA and at least a Top Safety Pick rating from IIHS.