What Is an NHTSA Safety Rating?

A NHTSA safety rating is the overall safety rating a vehicle receives after undergoing a series of tests. Read this guide on NHTSA safety ratings to learn more.
Written by Tom Hindle
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
A NHTSA (pronounced "nit-sa") safety rating is the overall safety rating a vehicle receives after undergoing a series of tests. It indicates how well your car protects you from injuries during an accident.
Cars tested by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) receive ratings out of five stars in three categories, plus an overall safety rating. It’s simple: the more stars a vehicle earns, the lower the chance of injury to its occupants in the event of a crash.
NHTSA safety ratings are useful metrics, especially when you’re
buying a new car
. Of course, even the safest cars still need good
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In the meantime, we’ve compiled everything worth knowing about NHTSA safety ratings and how the testing process works.
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What is NHTSA?

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
takes an active role in evaluating, regulating, and tracking vehicle safety. But its main purpose is to reduce injury, death, and financial loss as a result of road traffic accidents.
To achieve that goal, NHTSA runs a series of tests for every new, high-volume vehicle being introduced into the American market. This means that a popular car like a 2021 Honda Civic would be tested thoroughly by the NHTSA, but a fancy Pagani Huayra might not.
In the 43 years since its founding, NHTSA has become increasingly complex. What started with a frontal crash evaluation has become a more thorough testing regimen—one that you’ve probably seen advertised when you’re on the hunt for a new car.

What makes up an NHTSA safety rating?

NHTSA puts new cars through three major tests: frontal crash, side crash, and rollover testing. It complements those tests with an additional list of recommended driver-assist features.

Frontal crash test

The frontal crash simulates a head-on collision with a car of near-identical size and weight. Think of it as an oncoming car veering out of its lane and into your hood.
A crash test dummy is placed in the driver’s seat and another in the passenger seat, both secured by seat belts. The car is then driven into a solid wall at 35 mph—with advanced sensors in the crash test dummy determining the likelihood of injury to the driver and passenger.

Side crash tests

But not all accidents happen head-on—which is why NHTSA introduced two side-crash tests.
The first recreates being t-boned in a four-way intersection with a 3,000-pound barrier driven into the stationary vehicle at nearly 40 mph—this time with one crash test dummy in the driver’s seat and a second in the rear seat.
This more advanced test yields three ratings: one for the driver, a second for the passenger, and the third combining the two.
NHTSA conducts a second side collision test, simulating a driver losing grip on a snowy or wet surface and careening into a telephone pole or substantial object on the side of the road. It produces another rating, which is then combined with all other side crash scores to offer an overall number.

Rollover tests

In 2000, NHTSA introduced a rollover test in response to 35 percent of fatal crashes happening due to rollovers.
It’s a more complex mathematical formula, dubbed the Static Stability Factor (SSF), which determines how likely a vehicle is to tip in the event of a sharp turn at high speed.

Driver assistance technology

NHTSA’s ratings are accompanied by a list of recommended driver-assist technology, highlighting the features cars offer to keep the driver safe, such as emergency braking or lane keep assist. They don’t impact the car’s overall rating.
Key Takeaway NHTSA conducts three crash tests, each measuring a different element of car safety.
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NHTSA star ratings

The stars are a standardized rating meant to offer a raw score out of five for every vehicle.
Because NHTSA simulates cars being hit by other vehicles of equal size and weight, the stars offer some normalization over everything from smaller
Honda Civics
Ford F-150s
But the ratings can be a tad misleading. Regardless of standardization techniques, even NHTSA admits that it’s impossible to compare the safety of a
coupe to a sedan
Rather, comparisons should be made between vehicles of a similar size and class—for example, a
SUV relative to its
Ratings also differ for both driver and passenger. In the frontal test, for example, the driver dummy may earn a five-star rating, while the passenger might only get a four. It’s worth keeping an eye on when you’re buying a new car.
Key Takeaway The NHTSA ratings score a vehicle out of a possible five stars, offering a way to compare makes and models based on safety.

What about IIHS?

You’ve probably heard that a certain vehicle might be "an IIHS Top Safety Pick." That tag comes from another testing regimen—one conducted by the
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
IIHS tests are, at times, more thorough than NHTSA’s. They take on six different categories and include trials for roof protection, headlights, and even emergency braking.
The IIHS ratings are intended to augment NHTSA ratings, not replace them. But IIHS metrics are still worth looking at.

Other tests

Most carmakers have their own tests, too. Volvo, for example, simulates between 20,000 and 30,000 computerized crashes and conducts around 60 physical tests at its center in Sweden.
The bottom line is every automaker has to put their vehicles through rigorous examinations before they even come close to tackling NHTSA and IIHS. So, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make sure that your car is as safe as possible.

Keeping yourself safe with good insurance

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What cars have a 5-star rating from NHTSA?

Quite a few. While a five-star rating is certainly the most desirable score, it’s not a totally exclusive group.
A few five-star-rated cars tested in 2020 include the Honda Civic, VW Passat, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Maxima, and Kia Optima.
To find out what rating your car has, you can search the
NHTSA database here
If your car doesn’t score a perfect five, don’t worry. A four is still a solid rating—but you shouldn’t settle for less.

Aren’t some injuries inevitable, anyway?

Yes, and no matter how much NHTSA and IIHS work on their tests, they can’t account for human error. The reality is that even in highly rated "safe cars," injuries happen. That’s why having a good insurance policy is so important.
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