Guide to Crash Safety Ratings

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Knowing how well your car will protect you in the event of a collision is an important factor in choosing the right car to buy. 

Crash test safety ratings are designed to do just that – text, evaluate, and score new vehicles based on how they’re likely to hold up in real-world crash scenarios. 

Fortunately, checking a car or truck safety ratings is simple. You can find 5-star safety ratings using’s Safety Rating Search. You can also find past and active recalls for your current vehicle or the one you’re interested in using our Recall Search

Learn more about the details behind a vehicle’s crash safety ratings, how the crash tests are conducted, and which organizations are responsible for rating new cars and trucks. 

Need more details on the vehicle you’re interested in? Decode the VIN or use our free license plate lookup to get started. 

What are Crash Safety Ratings?

Crash safety ratings are essentially a vehicle’s performance score on laboratory tests designed to simulate the most common and most dangerous types of crashes and collisions. 

The safety ratings serve as a quick way to compare the crashworthiness of one vehicle over another. 

When you’re shopping for a car, it’s NHTSA 5-star safety rating will be displayed on the window sticker. These tests are designed to help consumers make the best decisions when buying a new car or truck. 

While automakers conduct their own crash tests on the vehicles they make, crash tests conducted and evaluated by independent organizations typically hold more weight. 

The two main organizations that conduct new vehicle safety ratings are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). 

The NHTSA and IIHS have developed crash test and rating criteria that they use to evaluate new cars and trucks every model year. 

Vehicles that get tested are based on popularity, new technology, and updated designs. Not every new car or truck is evaluated each year. 

For example, the NHTSA’s tested vehicles for 2022 represent about 86% of new vehicles for the model year. 

How are crash test ratings determined?

The main criteria for a vehicle’s safety rating score is how it performs on a variety of crash tests that are designed to simulate real collisions. 

The NHTSA and IIHS use slightly different tests to evaluate how well a vehicle protects its occupants in the event of:

  • Moving and stationary front impacts.
  • Moving and stationary side impacts.
  • Rollovers and roof strength. 

The tests evaluate the structural integrity of the vehicle as well as the performance of its passive safety features including air bags, seatbelts, LATCH systems, etc. 

They also utilize crash test dummies to simulate and evaluate potential injuries during a collision. 

Both the NHTSA and IIHS have developed their own rating criteria which go into the final scores for each vehicle. 

NHTSA uses a 1 to 5 star rating scale, that is given as an overall rating and a rating on each individual test. 

IIHS provides ratings of Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor for most of the crash tests, and ratings of Superior, Advanced, or Basic for crash prevention technologies and vehicle safety equipment. 

Each of the different tests use crash test dummies, sensors, and cameras to measure:

  • Structural integrity. 
  • Effectiveness of seatbelts and airbags. 
  • Potential injuries or death.
  • Occupant movement during a crash. 

What is the best crash test rating?

The best crash test ratings are the vehicles that score the highest in each of the test’s categories. 

For NHTSA, the best safety rating a vehicle can receive is a 5-star safety rating in each category. 

For IIHS, the vehicles that perform well on its tests are awarded Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+. To qualify, the car or truck must earn a “Good” rating on each crash test, and it must also earn “Good” or “Acceptable” ratings for its headlights and “Advanced” or “Superior” ratings for its crash prevention technologies. 

So, if you’re looking for the best safety rated vehicles, look for cars and trucks with:

  • 5-star safety rating from the NHTSA. 
  • Top Safety Pick awards from the IIHS. 

NHTSA Crash Safety Ratings

The NHTSA evaluates new vehicles based on the following categories:

  • Overall crash rating. 
  • Frontal crash rating. 
  • Side crash rating. 
  • Rollover rating. 
  • Safety technology features. 

In each of the crash and rollover categories, the vehicle is able to receive a score of 1 to 5 stars.

The more stars it has, the safer the vehicle is during a crash. 

The evaluations also make note of which types of safety features and crash avoidance technologies are included in the vehicle. 

Each of the crash tests are designed to simulate the most common and most deadly collisions that occur on the roads each year.

You can learn more about NHTSA’s 5-Star Rating Program here:  

Frontal Crash Test

The NHTSA’s front crash test is designed to simulate a head-on collision with another vehicle. 

The crash is designed to simulate a crash between two vehicles of a similar size.

To do so, it pulls the tested vehicle into a fixed barrier at 35 mph. 

Inside the car, an average adult-male-sized crash test dummy is seated in the driver’s seat and a small-sized adult female crash test dummy is seated in the front passenger seat. 

Side Crash Test

The NHTSA conducts two tests to evaluate a vehicle’s side crash safety rating. 

The first is the side barrier crash test, which is designed to simulate a collision in which another vehicle t-bones the driver’s side of your car at an intersection. 

In this test, a 3,015 lb barrier moving 38.5 mph crashed into the vehicle being tested. 

Inside the car, an average adult-male-sized crash test dummy is seated in the driver’s seat and a small-sized adult female crash test dummy is seated in the rear, driver’s side passenger seat. 

The second side crash test is designed to simulate a collision with a telephone pole or other statutory object after losing control of your vehicle. 

In this test, the vehicle is pulled sideways at 20mph into a stationary pole so that it crashes near the driver’s seat. 

Inside the car is a small-size adult female crash dummy in the driver’s seat. 

Rollover Resistance Test

Finally, the NHTSA conducts a test to evaluate how likely a vehicle is to rollover. 

The test is designed to simulate rollover resistance for a vehicle traveling 55 mph and turning sharply. 

This test is conducted using measurement tools in a laboratory. 

Driver Assistance Technology Evaluation

While the NHTSA does not rate safety technologies, it does note whether or not a vehicle features them. 

It makes note of whether the following features are standard or optional:

  • Forward Collision Warning. 
  • Lane Departure Warning. 
  • Automatic Emergency Braking. 
  • Rearview Video System. 
  • Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS).

IIHS Crash Safety Ratings

The IIHS conducts 6 crash tests to rate new vehicles each year. 

These tests include:

  • Front crash tests.
  • Side crash tests. 
  • Roof strength. 
  • Head restraints and seat tests.

Additionally, it rates the performance of the vehicle’s headlights, LATCH child seat attachments, and crash prevention technologies. 

For its crash tests, headlights, and LATCH evaluations a vehicle can earn a rating of Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor. 

For its front crash prevention technology tests, a vehicle can earn a rating of Superior, Advanced, or Basic assuming the technologies are present and tested. 

For the highest rated cars and trucks, the IIHS awards Top Safety Picks. These are given to the vehicles that score “Good” in each of the crash test categories.

You can learn more about the IIHS vehicle safety ratings program here: 

Front Crash Tests

To evaluate a vehicle’s front crash safety rating, the IIHS uses 3 different tests:

  • A moderate overlap front test.
  • A driver-side small overlap front test.
  • A passenger-side small overlap front test. 

Each one of these tests is designed to simulate a head-on collision with another vehicle or object at different positions at the front of the tested vehicle. 

In each test, the vehicle crashes into a barrier at 40 mph. 

For the moderate overlap test, the barrier is deformable and makes an impact with 40% of the front width of the vehicle. 

For the driver and passenger small overlap tests, the barrier is rigid and the impact strikes 25% of the front width of the vehicle. 

Side Crash Tests

The IIHS side crash test is designed to simulate the tested vehicle being struck on the driver’s side by another vehicle moving perpendicular to it at 37 mph. 

The barrier used in the test is designed to simulate a modern SUV or pickup truck. 

In this test, the 4,180 lb barrier strikes the tested vehicle on the driver’s side at 37 mph. 

The rating evaluates the vehicle on its injury measurements, head protection, and structure performance. 

Roof Strength Tests

The IIHS roof strength test is designed to evaluate how well a vehicle will protect its occupants in the event of a rollover. 

For this test, an angled metal plate is gradually pressed against the roof of the vehicle. 

The force required to crush the roof is measured, and the vehicle is given a strength-to-weight ratio. 

Vehicles that earn a strength-to-weight ratio of 4 or greater earn a “Good” rating on the test. 

Additional IIHS Rating Criteria

In addition to the main crash tests above, the IIHS also tests:

  • Head restraints and seats to see how well they protect the neck, spine, and head during a collision. 
  • Front crash prevention technologies, which evaluate a vehicle’s automatic braking in simulations for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian collisions. 
  • Headlight rating to see how well the headlight illuminates the road ahead. 
  • LATCH ratings, which evaluate the ease-of-use for the child seat restraint system.