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Is your car safe?

By Barbara Marquand on January 6th, 2014

Don't take the car dealer's word that the vehicle you want to buy is safe. Check the safety ratings, and understand what they mean.

Two organizations rate vehicles for safety -- the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal government agency; and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit group supported by the insurance industry. The NHTSA and IIHS conduct different tests and produce different ratings. It's a good idea to check both.

Government safety ratings

The NHTSA's 5-star Safety Ratings Program tests cars every year and posts its ratings at SaferCar.gov. The government agency plans to test 48 vehicles for the 2014 model year, including 22 passenger cars, 18 sport-utility vehicles, five pickups and three vans.

Cars receive safety ratings of one to five stars, with five being the best, in frontal crash, side crash, and rollover resistance, as well as an overall rating. The program also highlights advanced crash-avoidance technologies, such as lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and rearview video systems.

Recently federal officials announced new rules to clarify how automakers and dealers can advertise the ratings. The updated guidelines state that the ratings are always whole numbers, and that the NHTSA does not ever award more than five stars.

The clarification came after Tesla Motors Inc., an electric car maker in Palo Alto, Calif., said its Model S achieved a 5.4-star rating from the government. The updated rules also state that advertisers should not use the term "double five-star rating" to describe a car that has a five-star rating for the driver and right-front passenger positions.

IIHS awards "Top Safety Picks"

The IIHS rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal or poor on performance in five tests:

  • The small overlap frontal crash test mimics what happens when the front corner of a vehicle crashes into another vehicle or object, such as utility pole. The institute added the test, its newest, in 2012.
  • The moderate overlap frontal crash test mimics what happens when 40 percent of the front of a car collides with another vehicle.
  • The side crash test shows how well a car protects occupants when an SUV-like barrier hits the driver's side door.
  • The roof strength test shows how well a vehicle's roof would hold up in a rollover crash.
  • The head restraints and seat test mimics a rear-end crash and tests how well a vehicle's head restraints prevent neck injuries.

Vehicles that score good in four out of the five crash tests and no less than acceptable in the fifth earn the institute's "Top Safety Pick-Plus" award. Vehicles with good ratings in the moderate overlap front, side, rollover and rear head restraints test earn the "Top Safety Pick" designation, regardless of their scores in the small overlap frontal test.

You can see a list of the award winners, as well as look up ratings for specific vehicles and model years, on the IIHS.org website.

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