How To Read Car Safety Ratings

You hear it all the timeâÂ?¦”5-Star car safety rating”âÂ?¦ “superior car safety rating”âÂ?¦Terms like this are used by car dealerships all the time. But what exactly does it mean? And how does it impact your decision to buy a car?

We all want the best – and safest deal for our money. And everywhere we turn we hear something about car safety ratings. Is it bad if you don’t get that car with five stars or a rating of good? If you buy the best rated vehicle, is there a guarantee you and your passengers will survive a crash? Unfortunately, no matter how high your car rates, there are no guarantees! Survival of a crash depends on many things, such as types of vehicles involved, driving ability, speed and of course, safety features.

But Exactly What Are Car Safety Ratings?
Car safety ratings are just that – a way to compare vehicle safety after different crash tests. But there a few key points you need to understand. For instance, these tests are done on vehicles in the same class, which means a small efficiency car is not matched up to a big sports utility. Generally, the bigger and heavier the car, the safer you are. But good ratings on a small car still improves you odds since according to the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), at least half of occupant fatalities in 2003 were due to a single vehicle collision.

There are also different types of tests, each with their own rating, so a general understanding of the types and ratings of the tests will help you make an educated decision when buying your next vehicle.

Points Involved in Car Safety Ratings
Today, vehicle construction has come a long way. They are designed to absorb the energy produced by a collision through the vehicle and around its passengers. But when shopping for the safest car there are three keys to look for: safety equipment, vehicle weight and its resistance to rollovers. All three of these points are subjected to tests and standards.
1.Safety Equipment. These are things like seat belts, which still are the number one way to survive a car crash. Worn properly across your shoulder and hips, it can prevent you from an injury caused by hitting the interior of the car, plus prevent ejection from the vehicle. It can also keep you a safe distance from a deploying air bag.

Air bags are rapidly becoming standard features. In fact, front air bags have been standard in passenger vehicles since 1998 and SUV’s since 1999. It is estimated that front air bags have saved over 13,000 lives since 1987. (Side and rear impact bags are not yet a standard feature in many makes and models.)

A frontal collision accounts for half of the deaths caused by accidents – this is what makes frontal air bags so important! These life-saving devices inflate in the blink of an eye from an electronic control unit. This “brain”, usually located in the middle of the car, receives signals from various sensors and deploys to prevent you from hitting the interior of the car or from being ejected from the vehicle. They don’t, however, protect you from side or rear impacts or rollovers.

A 5-star rating of frontal air bags means you have a ten percent or less chance of serious injury. The odds of surviving a crash without serious injury decrease with the number of stars, so you chances of serious injury can be close to fifty percent with a 1-star rating. These tests are based on an average adult male and a head-on collision at roughly 35 mph.

But you can also have good-to-poor ratings. These tests are based on an offset frontal collision where only about forty percent of the front end is impacted. These ratings are based on how the structure of the vehicle performs and the movement of the passengers, such as partial ejections. Your chances of serious injury increase with lower ratings.

Side impact tests are also performed. These are based on the same one-to-five star rating. These tests measure the force applied to the head, neck, shoulders, chest and pelvis. But it does not include the risk of head injuries, which are considered a “safety concern”. A 5-star rating translates into a five percent or less chance of serious injury. One star increases you chances up to 26% or more.

Rear impact testing is performed, but only accounts for approximately five percent of belted occupant fatalities. Usually, rear passengers sustain whiplash injuries.

2.Vehicle Weight. All vehicles must meet the standards for crash-worthiness set by the US Department of Transportation. However, it stands to reason that a larger, heavier vehicle is safer than a smaller, lighter one, especially if the two collide.

3.Resistance to Rollover. To understand the exact mechanics of a rollover would require an in-depth physics lesson. Generally, a rollover occurs when the vehicles center of gravity is thrown off, as it is moving. Since single vehicle rollovers cause more fatalities than any other motor vehicle accident, rollover safety should be considered. SUV’s, for example, have a higher rollover rate (36%) as compared to a car (15%).

Car manufacturers have made modifications to higher risk vehicles, such as lowering the center of gravity and widening the wheel track in recent years, but this does not guarantee rollovers will not occur.

Rollover ratings have become standard for all 2005 vehicles. A 5-star rating means you have a ten percent or less chance of serious injury due to rollover. Higher rollover rated vehicles usually have side impact air bags, which tend to stay deployed longer in the event your car does tip.

One-star, you have an increased chance of around 26% or more of sustaining a serious injury or even dying.

Other Safety Considerations
There are other active safety features available; some come standard, especially on high-end models. Most manufacturers have made these features available as add-ons if they do not come standard. Things like an antilock brake system (ABS) and traction control can increase your overall safety.

Antilock brakes, available on all four wheel or rear wheels, help prevent the wheels from locking, which can result in longer stopping distances and loss of steering and stability. Mainly, they are advantageous on wet, slippery roads to prevent skidding. They can help you keep control but do not necessarily mean you will stop faster. And, there is no significant evidence that an ABS system will decrease the risks of a crash.

Traction control can help stabilize the vehicle and increase traction and usually is available on high-end models.

Lastly, tires are a major consideration in safety. Under-inflated tires concentrate the vehicle’s weight just under the sidewalls. The tire can blow out from the stress of heat buildup and the constant flexing of the sidewalls. Poor treads on the tires can decrease your traction and cause hydroplaning, where you lose the ability to steer and brake, especially on wet road conditions. Mismatched tires can affect the handling and increase the likelihood of sliding and spinouts.

While high car safety ratings are no guarantee that you will walk away from a devastating car crash, they do significantly increase you odds. When shopping for a new vehicle, you should always compare all the car safety ratings to decide which is right for you. And to maximize safety, you should keep you car on a regular maintenance schedule.

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