The 6 Things To Know About Star Safety Ratings

April 4, 2011

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.

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