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Understand safety ratings, organizations that rate them

Top-rated 2018 Hyundai Elantra

Every year, vehicles in the U.S. get safer. With each manufacturer’s redesign, vehicles target key safety ratings by incorporating new technologies car buyers value, which will protect their families and others on the road.

It is true that new cars are put through more rigorous safety testing that ever before, but data shows vehicles are getting safer every year.

Two organizations test vehicles for crashworthiness in the U.S. They each test cars differently, so considering both agencies’ ratings are important. The first is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a government agency that’s part of the Department of Transportation; and the other is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit founded and funded by car insurance companies.

Top-rated 2018 Chevrolet Volt
Top-rated 2018 Chevrolet Volt


The IIHS tests are more rigid, as they incorporate “offset” crash tests. The offset test is unique: Imagine hitting a wall square on – the force is spread out over the entire front of the car, deforming the “crumple zone” to help absorb all that energy.

But, most car crashes aren’t in a lab, and few involve hitting a wall square on. So, some IIHS tests involve a car crashing into an object with less of the front end of the vehicle involved – between 40 and 25 percent, that’s a lot less ability to absorb the impact energy.

Top-rated 2018 Mazda3
Top-rated 2018 Mazda3


To get the highest IIHS rating, headlight performance is also considered. Good headlights won’t keep you from getting hurt in a crash, but they may stop the crash in the first place. The NHTSA does not consider headlight performance, but that doesn’t make NHTSA ratings irrelevant, or IIHS ratings better. They’re simply different, revealing different things about the car.

The safest car is one that performs well on all the tests. Getting top ratings from both, which would be 5 stars from NHTSA and a “Top Safety Pick” rating from IIHS. Achieving these levels of safety is considered a good indication a vehicle is going to be safe in a wide variety of crashes.

Top-rated 2018 Subaru Outback
Top-rated 2018 Subaru Outback

Helping create safer drivers

A new educational website from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) applies physics and biology concepts to the real world of cars and car crashes.


The IIHS-HLDI in the Classroom ( is a free, online resource featuring hands-on science activities designed by science educator Griff Jones, Ph.D., a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching.

Activities align with Next Generation Science Standards for topics such as:

  • Inertia
  • Momentum
  • Impulse
  • Energy

The IIHS-HLDI Classroom expands on the topics explored in the Institute’s two popular science education films, “Understanding Car Crashes: It’s Basic Physics” and “Understanding Car Crashes: When Physics Meets Biology.”

Films & Activities

The IIHS collaborated with the University of Florida College of Education’s Department of E-Learning, Technology and Communications Services to create the new site, which includes both films and 11 classroom activities. Each activity features content for students and password-protected teacher resources, including lesson plans and answer keys.

The website aims to reinforce important physics and biology concepts while providing students the knowledge to make safe decisions while riding in or driving a vehicle.

This auto review was researched and written by SteinPro Content Services and provided to the Sun-Times for publication