Car shopping? Check our guide to the new passenger safety ratings

Cars are safer than ever, thanks to advances in engineering, safety systems, and the use of more exotic high-strength materials. Choosing a safer car is easier than it used to be, too, thanks to new crash ratings for passenger-side-impact collisions—as long as you know what to look for.

In October, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced the launch of a new test program for right-side small-overlap collisions. The tests are designed to place a priority on passenger safety, after testing last year revealed that vehicles which performed strongly on driver side small-overlap tests weren’t always as safe if the same collision happened on the other side of the front seat.1 2


Safety testing pushes ahead


IIHS’ new passenger ratings continue the industry’s trend to develop more realistic tests which better replicate real world accident scenarios, says Marcus Maingot, Vice President of Auto Product Management at Berkley One. Just six years ago, IIHS rolled out the first driver-side offset collision tests. Before this, the industry only conducted tests for direct or moderate overlap frontal collisions. The offset tests allowed IIHS to test areas on the perimeter of the vehicle that aren’t well protected by the vehicle’s crush-zone structures, which are concentrated in the middle front end of the vehicle.3

Testing new safety technology has also been key in recent years. With late-model vehicles boasting crash avoidance technology, safety systems, and braking advancements, the industry is looking at new ways to measure the safety benefit of these features.

Even crash dummies are getting more sophisticated, to better estimate injury results in the various crash test scenarios.

With these improvements, Robert Young, Auto Physical Damage Claim Manager at Berkley One, explains, “The industry is focused on giving the passenger side the same protection as compared to the driver’s side and providing equal protection to both sides of the vehicle.”

So what earns a vehicle a good passenger crash test score? “When an impact occurs, the vehicle is designed to take that force and wrap it around the structure of vehicle, instead of the people inside it,” Young explains.

With new and changing criteria, it can be hard to know what to look for when reading industry test results. Luckily, you don’t have to be an automobile expert to be a smart consumer of today’s tests.


First things first in reading safety ratings


Safety testing for the industry is conducted primarily by two organizations: NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration division of the U.S. Department of Transportation; and IIHS, which is privately funded. The NHSTA has developed the five-star rating system, while IIHS rates vehicles according to a scale (poor, marginal, acceptable, or good).

The first place to start is by checking the official ratings on their websites.

Just type in the make, model and year of any car and you’ll see how it performed in frontal crashes, small-overlap crashes, side crashes and rollovers. Check both sites, because each offers some helpful information you won’t find elsewhere. For example, NHTSA makes it easy to check recommended safety technology, and IIHS includes photos from crash tests, roof strength ratings, and crash avoidance ratings.  Carfax offers a good guide to reading the rating criteria of both for the complete picture.


Knowing what to look for


Because these tests are well-accepted as the industry benchmarks, many auto manufacturers design their vehicles to perform to them.

This can be good for safety, but causes a challenge in comparing reports. Today, nearly all newer models meet minimum requirements, and many boast perfect scores.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the metrics and not choose a car because it only ranks “acceptable” in a given area. To know what to look at, it helps to know more on how the ratings are measured.

Compare apples to apples

A common pitfall is not knowing which scores are designed to be compared within the same class, says Maingot. A classic example is the smart car. While these vehicles earn top marks for safety, some safety ratings (like frontal crash ratings) are calculated only against vehicles within their particular size/weight category. Because of basic physics of weight (a heavier car will push a lighter one back in a frontal impact) and size (larger vehicles have longer hoods and bigger crush zones), larger cars, in general, have an edge in safety in frontal-crash scenarios.5 6 That’s not to say that crash test ratings aren’t an effective measure of safety. Cars that score well in IIHS and NHSTA crash tests significantly reduce changes of injury or death regardless of size.6 But if you are comparing crash scores between vehicles, make sure you evaluate frontal crash test scores against cars in the same class.

There can be differences within the same model

Even within a given model and year, 2-door models can perform differently than 4-door models. That’s because expanding the passenger compartment changes its structure, explains Young. “When you expand the compartment, instead of putting in an A pillar and B pillar which is an extremely strong structure, the manufacturer will put in a center or B post. While this is still a very strong piece of material, this change creates more surface area–which is why you may see a different rating.”

Some criteria matter more for different vehicles

Knowing the type of vehicle you are looking for, and how you intend to use it, also plays into which criteria should be looked at closely. For instance, roof strength, which IIHS measures, is important when considering top-heavy vehicles such as a large SUV or trucks, which are more likely to flip in a collision. For sports cars, the most relevant criteria would look a little different.


Driving new safety changes—fast


Young says we can expect the new passenger-side ratings to drive improvements in passenger safety quickly. This year’s first 13-vehicle test group already performed better than previously evaluated models.1 We can expect more changes on the way, as carmakers often build in updates in the next generation of models to improve their scores, or sooner if the tests reveal a deficiency.

“Before now, testing focused only on the driver’s side, so carmakers focused on making the driver safe,” he said. “Now, we can also expect to see carmakers working harder to excel in these passenger side ratings, as well. They want those perfect scores.”

Manufacturers are pushing forward safety improvements in more ways than ever. Vehicles are using high-tech computers and advanced automotive technology, such as crash avoidance features and a network of sensors that can detect a condition that indicate an accident is about to occur. They’re also built with increasingly sophisticated materials. By using overlays of metal alloys such as boron, magnesium, aluminum, carbon fiber and ultra-high-strength steel, manufacturers can better protect vehicles’ passenger compartments.

Maingot explains that to meet government fuel efficiency standards, cars today also need to be lighter, so high end models in particular are experimenting with different materials that are both extremely lightweight and extremely strong.

“Cars today are safer than they’ve ever been,” Maingot explains, “A car rated ‘acceptable’ today could be as safe as the top-rated car of 10 years ago. Today’s safety tests and ratings are pushing manufacturers to produce safer and safer cars.”


Crash mitigation options: to buy or not to buy?


While the technology and testing that’s advancing vehicle safety is new, what’s not is the criteria that’s important to savvy consumers looking for their next set of wheels.

“Searching for the right car is a balancing act of cost, looks, usability, and safety,” explains Maingot.

So how important are advanced safety features like high-tech crash avoidance, side-impact air bags, restraint and systems in that equation? On many high-end cars, these features are standard; on mid-priced models, they are often optional. But are they worth the extra money?

“I’m a huge proponent of them,” Young concludes. “My son is a 17-year-old driver. So as far as I’m concerned: yes, absolutely. People are driving distractedly out there. Choosing a safer car with added features and better scores could make an accident less severe or slow it down. And when you can avoid an accident in the first place, that’s the best possible scenario.”

Marcus Maingot is Vice President, Auto Product Management at Berkley One.

Robert Young is Auto Physical Damage Claim Manager at Berkley One.