Buyer’s Guide: 3 Things to Remember About Safety Scores

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Automakers jump at the chance to advertise their vehicles as “Top Safety Picks” and for being rated “Five Stars” in crash testing.  But remember these three realities when shopping for a safe vehicle.

Size Matters

The first thing to remember is that size matters in crashes. Don’t take our word for it. Check out any crash test rating system in detail and you will always find a warning from the institute or agency that creates them warning that they are not applicable in crashes between vehicles of differing size.  Watch the results of a crash test between the two smallest Mercedes-Benz models in our attached video. The Mercedes C-Class annihilates the Smart ForTwo in the crash. Physics cannot be cheated.

Shoppers don’t usually compare cars with such a size difference, but shoppers most certainly do cross-shop crossovers with compact sedans. Crash tests results being equal, the heavier, larger vehicle is safer. The main take-away is that a Prius with a Top Safety Pick+ rating is not as safe as a Highlander Hybrid with that same rating.

Automakers Build to the Test

When one hears that a compact crossover is a Top Safety Pick and that it scored “Good” on the difficult small frontal overlap test, one might jump to the conclusion that the passenger in the seat next to the driver is just as safe as the driver. That may not be true. The reason is that some automakers just reinforce the side that they know the crash test will occur on.

The Insurance Institute For Highway Safety (IIHS), which conducts the most rigorous crash testing in US, recently pulled a fast on on automakers. It chose the top-selling compact crossovers and decided to test them on the other side, which is the passenger side, on the small-overlap crash test.

Although they had all scored “Good” on the side they expected the test to be conducted on, most did much worse on the “other-side” test. Toyota’s RAV4 did the worst, scoring “Poor.” IIHS noted that even with the naked eye testers could see there were differences in the structure of the vehicle on the two sides.

Time Changes Ratings

Last year we reported that IIHS had decided to change its standards. Both IIHS and also NHTSA have altered their testing protocols over the years by adding in new testing. However, what IIHS did was more than that. The Institute made the Top Safety Pick requirements harder.

While we applaud that move, it means that if one looks back at a used vehicle with a Top Safety Pick it does not have the same safety qualifications as a modern Top Safety Pick does.

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John Goreham

John Goreham