Vince and Larry, the crash-test dummies
While you might be perfectly happy with a two-star hotel or restaurant choice, you shouldn't ever settle for anything but five stars in a vehicle.
As before, you'll find federal star ratings printed on the window sticker of all new vehicles. But this year, they're different. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has revamped its New-Car Assessment Program (NCAP) for 2011—and now those star ratings are more likely to show, at a glance, the differences in protection from one model to another.
That was the intent, at least, with a new system that rates vehicles based on three stars as average, versus the star ratings corresponding to actual likelihood of injury. Already, there have been plenty of three-star ratings, and some two-star results, dealt out in a field that, last year, was packed with five-star results.
Yet there haven't been as many one- and two-star ratings as you might think.
"It's a good step forward," says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the other organization that crash-tests and rates U.S.-market vehicles for safety. "But it's not resulting in as much differentiation as NHTSA anticipated earlier."
The IIHS rates vehicles on a good/acceptable/marginal/poor scale, with vehicles that rate 'good' in all categories and include electronic stability control given Top Safety Pick status. At this point there are about 75 Top Safety Picks for 2011.
Crash tests and safety ratings have made cars much safer, especially over the past ten to fifteen years while we've had two active testing organizations ramping up requirements. Yet the IIHS's Rader concedes that there are still people being killed in vehicles that perform well by all existing crash-test ratings, and it's up for his organization and the federal government to raise the bar, not by introducing tougher versions of existing frontal and side impact tests, but with new tests that will target those scenarios—including crash structures that don't match.
How do you choose the safest vehicle possible? For starters, look at IIHS ratings in addition to these new federal star ratings.
And read on for how to best keep your family the safest and get the most out of these ratings.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze crash test
1) Star Ratings Do Correspond To Injury and Fatality Rates
Star safety ratings aren't like restaurant or hotel ratings. They're rooted in precise instrumented testing with crash-test dummies, and they really do correspond to your chances of avoiding bodily harm and surviving a crash.
"Vehicles because of crash tests are much safer today than even ten years ago," said Russ Rader of the IIHS. The average probability of injury for drivers in official NHTSA crash-test conditions was cut in half from 1995 to 2008. With that, star ratings have become more stringent, with the most significant change in years arriving this past year, for the 2011 model year.
And if you look at IIHS and NHTSA ratings together, as the non-profit safety group Informed For Life has done (in addition to accounting for vehicle weight), there's an even closer correlation.
"There's no reason to settle for a vehicle that doesn't get top marks in both tests," advised Russ Rader of the IIHS.
IIHS tests Mercedes-Benz E-Class vs Smart Fortwo
2) Star Ratings Don't Compare Across Weight Classes
This is one of the key points to keep in mind as you browse safety ratings. Even with the realignment of federal star ratings, a small hatchback with a five-star score might not provide the protection of a mid-size sedan also getting five stars. And that's even before considering issues with bumpers and crash structures that don't always meet up.
"Size and weight are important aspects of what happens in a crash," said the IIHS's Rader. "So a small car that gets top crash-test ratings isn't as safe as a large car with the same ratings."
2009 Chevrolet Malibu vs 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air
3) This Year's Ratings Don't Compare To Last Year's
The former NHTSA tests were based on estimated risk of serious injury in the federal government's 35-mph fixed-barrier frontal offset and 38.5-mph side-barrier tests. However, under that former system, the vast majority of vehicles tested were honor-roll students, earning four- and five-star ratings—and it was tough to tell the best from the better.
The revised test method corresponds to relative risk, using a baseline, compared to other vehicles within a class, with average running around three stars, so it assures that the agency will use more, if not all, of the ratings spread. Three stars is now "average to greater than average," while four stars is "less than average to average" and five stars is "much less than average." Ratings of one and two stars, of course, correspond to greater-than-average risks of injury.
The tests themselves are different, too, with different test dummies, test conditions, and more data. Most significant is the inclusion of a fifth-percentile female dummy to consider injuries for smaller occupants and teens. The other most significant change is the introduction of a side pole test, which simulates a side skid collision with a tree or utility pole—although that test isn't yet figured into the Overall Vehicle Score.
Volvo lane departure warning
4) Star Ratings Don't Gauge Safety Equipment
Not all vehicles come with what safety hawks would judge to be essential safety equipment. And in the federal tests, provided a vehicle has what's legal, it doesn't affect the Overall Vehicle Score for safety.
The list of federally mandated safety features has grown over the years and this past decade, now includes side airbags in all vehicles. Electronic stability control, for instance, might be highly recommended and a proven lifesaver, but it's not yet officially required in all vehicles. It's up to you, the shopper, to make sure you get a vehicle that includes all of these essential features.
Looking ahead, we'll see greater implementation of forward collision warning and lane-departure warning systems, two advanced-tech features that the federal government has targeted as making a recognized difference in safety. For the first time, the federal government is including information about crash-avoidance technologies—and you'll see them listed when you look a vehicle up—but they're not figured into the star rating.
Continental's Emergency Steer Assist
5) Star Ratings Don't Say Much About Accident Avoidance
Outside of the Rollover score, which indicates a better chance of avoiding particularly deadly rollover situations, the federal government's star safety ratings don't say anything about actual accident avoidance. Definitely pay attention to the Rollover rating—and if in doubt a higher star rating indicates a more stable-handling vehicle—but you're going to have to trust your own instincts a bit here. Does the vehicle handle responsively? Do you find it confidence-inspiring?
Outward visibility is another very important safety aspect that has a lot to do with accident avoidance. A vehicle with limited outward visibility in some directions isn't inherently unsafe, but in a world with other vehicles, distracted drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists, it is. Can you comfortably and easily see out when backing up or changing lanes? If not, move on to another vehicle with good star ratings.
2011 Maserati Quattroporte GT S Awards Edition
6) Shopping for a luxury vehicle or sports car? It probably hasn't been rated.
The federal government plans to test just 55 models this year, out of hundreds on the market. And it emphasizes those that sell in high numbers. What does that mean? You're certainly not going to see crash-test results for low-volume vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz CL-Class, the Maserati Quattroporte, or the Mazda RX-8.
"We test the most popular model vehicles," said Ron Medford, NHTSA deputy administrator, in a video about the new system. "We estimate that about 80 percent of the market is commonly tested with our program."