Safety Standards Changing for New Cars

Sep 10, 2009
In 2009, 84 vehicles earned the title of “top safety pick” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the largest number for a single year since the award’s inception.  Now the government and the IIHS are making some changes that will make it tougher for vehicles to receive top marks on the test.

The IIHS, a division of the insurance industry that tests for safety standards, will not give the award to any car model year 2010 or later that does not earn a “good” rating on its new roof strength test, designed to test the car’s ability to withstand a rollover.  In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will be introducing a more rigorous crash safety testing system for post-2011 models.  The new tests will include a tough new side-impact test, which involves crashing the vehicles into a pole, and a completely new overall safety score.

With the new testing standards being rolled out, fewer cars will earn five stars in the NHTSA’s one-to-five grading system, and will also have a harder time winning the top safety pick award.

The switch has the potential to be confusing for consumers, including fleet managers, as safety ratings begin to change for new cars.  Automakers have done so well at engineering safety features that most cars are above average, so the bar is being raised to separate the extraordinary performers from the pack and demonstrate the difference between models.  Consumers may see lower scores for many vehicles, but they will not suddenly be less safe. For example, the best performer on the new test so far is the Smart Fortwo, which withstands 5.41 times the vehicle’s weight on the roof.  The worst performer was the Chevrolet Aveo, which still held 3.09 times its own weight, more than double the industry standard.

One issue with the new standards is that the two agencies are not instituting their changes in the same way or at the same time, so prospective car buyers will not be sure of how to factor safety ratings into their decisions.  Consumers will have to pay careful attention to the specifics of their vehicle’s ratings until a unified system falls into place.

While the IIHS doesn’t use any one test as the benchmark for their ratings, the new roof-crush test is intended to make a point. Its president, Adrian Lund, said in a statement that the government’s “leisurely phase-in of the new standard means roofs won’t have to get stronger right away, so we plan to continue rating vehicle roof strength for the foreseeable future. We want to reward manufacturers who are ahead of their competition when it comes to providing protection in rollover crashes.”

Photo courtesy of The Pug Father under the Creative Commons License.