The Evolution of Car Safety Ratings

Technological advances over the past few decades are evident in every aspect of our daily lives, from smartphones to vehicle improvements. Today vehicle safety is typically one of the most critical factors considered when buying a new car, but that has not always been the case. Vehicle safety rating agencies have had to keep up with the desires of the public by continuously improving their standards over time. Let’s take a look at some of the most significant vehicle safety changes that have taken place since the 1970's, a time when vehicle-related fatalities in the United States were at their peak.

Agencies That Rate Vehicle Safety

The US has two primary organizations that evaluate vehicle safety in the US. Although founded for different reasons they both play essential roles in developing vehicle safety norms.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – NHTSA (formed in 1970)

Currently, NHTSA does a lot more than award car safety ratings based on crash tests: its mission is "to save lives, prevent injuries and reduce traffic-related health care and other economic costs," and as such it has evolved with the times.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - IIHS (formed in 1959)

The IIHS is a non-profit organization funded by the insurance industry; it conducts its safety program on specifics such as children car seats and is responsible for developing the "small overlap frontal crash test" to determine the effects of hitting a tree or light pole.

Crash tests

1970 - 1993:
Although it was created in 1970 because of a dramatic increase in fatal car accidents, it was not until 1978 that NHTSA began using data from crash test dummies to rate vehicles for frontal protection. They tested 35 vehicles, all 1978 models by crashing each directly into a wall at 30 mph. Although most failed, passing the test became a standard in 1982.
As safety tests evolved, the importance of car safety became more evident. In June 1978, Ford recalled 1.5 million Pintos due to a failed design that left it vulnerable to blowing up in flames when hit from behind because of its overexposed gas tank. However, it wasn't until 1993 that the NHTSA introduced its 5-Star Safety Ratings system with the objective of informing the public about safer choices when purchasing a vehicle.
2000 - 2018:
In 2004 (now was launched to facilitate the access of ratings and other vital transportation issues to consumers. In 2010, an enhanced 5-star safety rating system was implemented in the United States. To qualify, auto manufacturers selling vehicles in the US have to incorporate specific safety technologies into their products before a specified deadline. This system is the reason why all 5-star rated new cars sold today contain a rearview safety video system. In 2022, automatic brake systems will be another required technology that manufacturers must include.
The IIHS also rates car safety, but it uses a different system and awards qualifying vehicles with its designation of Top Safety Pick.
Safety standards have reached a higher level for drivers and passengers. While more companies have improved the safety of their vehicles, some models strayed behind. One such example is the 2012 Audi A4, receiving a Poor rating from the IIHS based on this video.

Consider Safety Before Buying

When thinking about buying a vehicle, whether new or used, keep these things in mind:
  • Look for a car that is a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS and also has at least a 4-star rating from the NHTSA.
  • With safety being a priority, opt for a car that is more than just small and light.
  • When buying a used car, check the NHTSA’s website to make sure it has not been recalled. If it has been recalled, it means that the manufacturer has recognized a problem with it.

Another thing to consider is whether you are covered should an accident occur. Call one of our friendly agents at 1-800-INFINITY to discuss your options for an auto insurance policy or visit our website for a free quote.

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