The 2022 Toyota Corolla Cross is an IIHS Top Safety+. Photo: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.


Guide To NHTSA and IIHS Crash Test Safety Ratings

Written By: Jerry Reynolds | Jun 1, 2023 2:30:00 PM

If you’re researching new cars, safety ratings and crash tests are likely to factor into your decision making. 

Crash Test Ratings

There are two well-known sources of crash test ratings:

Both provide valuable information but their testing and scoring methods are different and they are funded differently, one being a government agency, and the other not.  

NHTSA 5-Star Rating System 

NHTSA was officially established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970.  Its mission is to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity.” So minimizing deaths and injuries is its sole motivation.

The agency's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), introduced in 1993, ranks vehicles using a 5-Star Safety Rating system with 5 being the best. You’ll find NHTSA ratings (when available) on vehicle Monroney stickers.  The NHTSA currently conducts four crash tests:

  • front impact
  • side barrier
  • side pole
  • rollover resistance
Here's a list of the 2023 models planned for NHTSA 5-Star Safety Ratings testing →

The NHTSA says it is working to finalize the significant safety updates the agency proposed in March 2022 to its 5-Star Safety Ratings program. Proposed updates included expanded testing of ADAS and a 10-year roadmap for future NCAP updates. 

2023 Update: NHTSA Proposes New Crashworthiness Pedestrian Protection Testing Program 

In May 2023, the NHTSA announced that it is proposing updates to its flagship vehicle safety consumer information program, the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP.  The agency says it's issuing a request for public comment on new pedestrian crashworthiness tests that measure how well vehicles protect those outside the vehicle, which can reduce pedestrian fatalities.

“Ensuring the safety of pedestrians is a top priority at DOT, and these proposed updates to NCAP are an important step in addressing the crisis of roadway deaths in America,” said NHTSA Chief Counsel Ann Carlson. “Vehicles must be designed to protect their occupants while increasing safety for those outside the vehicle, too.”

This proposal is part of the agency’s comprehensive efforts to encourage pedestrian safety improvements in vehicles by adding tests that will show whether a vehicle can offer better protection to pedestrians in the event of a collision. These tests will provide consumers with crucial safety information about pedestrian safety and protection. NHTSA is also developing a proposed rule setting safety standards for automatic emergency braking, including pedestrian AEB for newly manufactured light vehicles. Pedestrian AEB is an in-vehicle system that can help avoid or mitigate a crash with a vulnerable road user by automatically applying the brakes.  

NHTSA is proposing to identify new model year vehicles that meet the agency’s testing criteria by assigning credit using check marks on the agency’s website.

NHTSA will take comments on the proposal for 60 days. Comments will be accepted on when the notice is posted.

Press Release

 The NHTSA also offers Car Seat Ease-of-Use Ratings.

IIHS Safety Ratings

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) refers to itself as "an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries and property damage from motor vehicle crashes through research and evaluation and through education of consumers, policymakers and safety professionals."  The IIHS was founded in 1959 by three major insurance associations representing 80 percent of the U.S. auto insurance market.  For a lengthy list of its supporting member groups click here.  

The IIHS has updated its crash tests. It no longer evaluates roof strength, head restraints and vehicle-to-vehicle front crash prevention of new models. The four crash tests it currently conducts are:

  • moderate overlap front
  • driver-side small overlap front
  • passenger-side small overlap front
  • side tests

Additionally, the IIHS evaluates front crash prevention systems for their ability to recognize and brake for pedestrians, rates headlight systems, seat belt reminders and the child seat LATCH attachment. 

High performers are awarded a Top Safety Pick or a Top Safety Pick + rating, the latter being the highest award.  

2023 Update:  IIHS Strengthens Requirements
In February 2023, the IIHS announced it is strengthening the requirements for its TOP SAFETY PICK and TOP SAFETY PICK+ awards, demanding better side crash protection and improved pedestrian crash prevention systems and eliminating subpar headlights from the field of qualifying vehicles.


Final Thoughts

When you’re buying a new car, look at both sites. It doesn’t hurt to get two points of views. I personally prefer NHTSA, since IIHs represents the insurance industry. That said, IIHS does some good work along with NHTSA so we’d suggest checking out both crash test ratings.

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Photo Credit:  IIHS.
This article was updated on June 2, 2023 with new information.