The IIHS, or Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, evaluates and assigns safety ratings to individual vehicles based on their performance in six different crash tests.
While most drivers are familiar with
NHTSA safety ratings, you can check your model’s crashworthiness and crash avoidance tech by taking a look at its IIHS test results, too. Here, we’ll go through the different collisions the IIHS evaluates and what a good safety rating looks like.
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What are IIHS safety ratings?
IIHS safety ratings are a score of how well a specific make and model protects its occupants through a series of six crash tests. These simulated collisions are designed to mimic common real-world crashes and are used to encourage automakers to manufacture safer cars.
Originating in 1959 from three major insurance associations, the IIHS uses different “ages” and sizes of crash test dummies today to measure vehicle crashworthiness and crash avoidance mitigation in the following scenarios.
Frontal crash test:
- Moderate overlap—test vehicle strikes 40% of a same-weight vehicle’s width head-on at 40 mph
- Small overlap (driver’s side)—test vehicle strikes 25% of a same-weight vehicle’s width head-on at 40 mph closer to the driver seat
- Small overlap (passenger’s side)—test vehicle strikes 25% of a same-weight vehicle’s width head-on at 40 mph closer to the passenger seat
Side impact test: A 4,200-lbs test barrier with the ride height of an average SUV or pickup strikes the driver's side of a test vehicle at 37 mph
Rollover crash (roof strength test): An angled metal plate applies force to the test vehicle’s roof to measure its peak strength-to-weight ratio
Rear-end collision test: Critical points of head and seat restraints are given a geometric rating at a standstill, then a dynamic rating when the stationary test vehicle is struck by a same-weight vehicle at 20 mph from behind
Through each crash test, engineers track dummy injuries, vehicle structure and safety cage integrity, collision avoidance tech, and head and seat restraint effectiveness. Let’s take a closer look.
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IIHS crashworthiness tests
“Crashworthiness” essentially means how well a vehicle can protect its passengers in the event of a collision. To determine this, the IIHS grades the following aspects through each crash test:
- Structure and safety cage—a vehicle’s safety cage is what guards the occupant compartment during a collision. Engineers examine how well its crumple zones reduce crash forces, and how much deformation and intrusion occurs.
- Injury measures—dummy sensors are used to determine injuries the driver, passenger, and rear-seat passengers might sustain during certain crashes. Different types of dummies and sensors can measure different aspects. For example, rear-end collision tests feature a dummy with a realistic spine to measure whiplash injuries.
- Restraints and dummy movement—technicians put grease paint on the dummy’s head, knees, and legs to gauge what body parts come into contact with the vehicle and where. This helps determine the effectiveness of seat belts and side curtain airbags for various sizes of vehicle occupants.
IIHS crash tests are always evolving. Just this year, an updated test for the moderate overlap front crash was developed using the SID-II dummy to measure injuries for 12-year-old children or small women in the back seat.
This smaller dummy was used for the first time in the side crash test to measure head injuries in rear occupants. Smaller rear passengers tend to be more at risk in a left-side crash because they are often head-level of incoming vehicles.
The side crash test was recently adjusted, as well. To better represent vehicles on the road today, the new test uses a 4,200-lbs barrier to crash into a vehicle at 37 mph, while the original test used a 3,300-lbs barrier at 31 mph.
IIHS President David Harkey notes that these changes to crash testing protocol push automakers to make life-saving improvements they may have overlooked otherwise.
IIHS crash avoidance tests
Alongside vehicle safety during a collision, the IIHS also measures how well a vehicle’s technology can help avoid or mitigate damage from a crash. Here are some key driver assistance technology tests the IIHS performs:
- Front crash prevention—tests vehicle’s emergency braking system and forward collision warning tech in simulations of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes
- Headlight evaluation—measures the reach of the car’s headlights while on curved and straight roads
- Seat belt reminder evaluation—checks the timing, volume, and duration of seat belt alerts in both front and rear seating positions
- Car seat LATCH evaluation—rates the accessibility, clearance angle, and attachment force of the vehicle’s Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH) hardware forcar seat installation
What is a good IIHS safety rating?
IIHS safety ratings for crashworthiness, seat belt restraints, and headlights go by a four-tier scale: good, acceptable, marginal, and poor.
Unlike the NHTSA, the IIHS gives each model an overall rating per evaluation rather than an overall score. When looking at a vehicle’s IIHS safety rating, you’ll therefore want to check each test and make sure most of them received good ratings. While an acceptable rating in one or two categories is fairly standard, a marginal or poor overall score is a bit of a red flag.
The IIHS rates its crash avoidance tests on a point system instead. The number of points a vehicle gets out total contributes to a score from 1 to 6. A score of 1 to 3 earns a model a “basic” rating, 3 to 5 earns an “advanced” rating, and 5 to 6 earns a “superior” rating. A vehicle with a superior rating is ideal but an advanced rating is acceptable, as well.
To encourage automakers to produce safer vehicles, IIHS also gives exceptionally safe models a Top Safety Pick Plus or Top Safety Pick award. Vehicles with these designations must have received good ratings in all crash tests, advanced or superior ratings in front crash prevention tests, and acceptable or good ratings for headlights (said headlights must come standard in Top Safety Pick Plus winners).
What cars receive top IIHS ratings?
A car’s safety can vary significantly by model year, with newer models receiving higher safety ratings thanks in part to the research and development IIHS and NHTSA stimulates.
To give you an idea of some of the safest vehicles currently out there, here are a few Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick Plus winners from popular vehicle classes in 2022.
If you’re looking into any one of these vehicles, you’ll likely find that their car insurance costs are a little better than vehicles with lower safety ratings, too. Since safer cars present less risk of costly damages, insurance companies typically reward them with lower premiums!
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Which is better—IIHS or NHTSA?
Both the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) and the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) are extremely useful resources when
shopping for a new or used car.
The IIHS currently conducts more motor vehicle crash tests and does more crash prevention technology testing than the NHTSA does. However, the NHTSA is government-run with tests performed at independent facilities across the U.S. In contrast, the IIHS is backed by the insurance industry, which leads some consumers to trust the NHTSA more.
What is the highest-rated car for safety?
Several 2022 models have received both 5-star safety ratings from NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick Plus award from the IIHS. Some popular vehicles amongst these include the Honda Civic, Nissan Pathfinder, Lexus NX 250, Hyundai Ioniq 5, and Toyota Tundra.