Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate drivers about...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Licensed Agent for 10 Years

UPDATED: Jul 30, 2019

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The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) keeps drivers safe by identifying cars that protect passengers well in a crash, in addition to finding new ways to make cars even safer in the future.

Each year, the IIHS searches to find the safest cars available and awards the top picks in various categories. The tests are rigorous, and only the safest cars survive.

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Who is the IIHS?

The IIHS is a non-profit organization based in the U.S. Established in 1959, funding for its activities is provided through auto insurance companies.

The Institute, headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, has a mission to reduce the overall number of car crashes, as well as the injuries and property damage that happen in the unfortunate crashes that still take place.

Its key functions are researching and reporting auto accident statistics and producing ratings for vehicles that have undergone crash testing. The IIHS also rates children’s car seats, boosters and some other consumer products for safety purposes.

The safety ratings assembled by IIHS aid consumers in choosing vehicles that provide a higher level of safety protection than federal standards require.

The IIHS Top Safety Pick Rating

The Institute has a rating system for vehicle safety functioning that includes good, acceptable, marginal, or poor grades based on each car’s performance in various tests. In total, 66 automobiles earned the IIHS award as a pick for top safety in 2011.

Of the winners, 40 of the vehicles were cars, 25 were SUVs, and one was a minivan.

The tests include a high-speed front and side crash test, a rollover test to gauge roof-strength, and an evaluation of the seat or head restraints that protect against neck injuries in a rear-impact crash.

Cars must achieve good ratings in all four of the IIHS tests to earn a winning spot in the annual contest and have the designation of top safety pick for the year. Additionally, the cars that win must also offer electronic stability control.

Electronic Stability Control

Electronic stability control is a technology relying on computerization to stabilize a vehicle and keep it under control. The technology detects when a car is skidding and minimizes the motion so the driver can regain control of the vehicle.

Each car that wins the honor of top safety pick must have electronic stability control as one of its regular or optional features.

New Judging Criteria

In 2010, the IIHS tightened judging criteria for the top safety picks, by including the requirement that every car that qualifies must earn a good rating on its performance in a test of roof strength. This test assesses the car’s protection for occupants in a rollover-type crash.

In 2010, this move sharply reduced the initial group of winners. As manufacturers have worked to enhance existing vehicle designs and introduce new models, the number of cars that meets the roof strength criteria has at least doubled.

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Do Insurance Companies Care About Top Safety Picks?

Insurance companies maintain an ongoing, profitable business by taking in more money than they pay out for accidents. When cars receive ratings based on their safety features and ability to protect passengers in a crash, insurers can predict how much it might cost them to pay for covered injuries and damages sustained in an accident.

The safer the car, the lower costs will be for repairs and medical bills due to injury or death. Medical bills related to injury are especially important since these costs can be much more substantial than the repair or replacement costs for a car.

This is one of the reasons insurance companies love features such as electronic stability control. IIHS research shows that it affects stability control significantly and reduces the risk of a crash, especially the risk of fatal crashes involving a single vehicle.

This safety feature improves drivers’ ability to keep control of their vehicle while engaged in emergency maneuvers.

Insurance companies offer many policy discounts to consumers who purchase cars with safety features such as electronic stability control, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and anti-theft systems, among others.

Keeping drivers safer not only saves lives but also reduces costs for the insurance company and consumers as well. If insurers pay out less money in claims, and the risk of an accident decreases with safer cars, consumers will ultimately pay smaller premiums.

Smash-Ups – How the Tests Work

There are four tests performed on each vehicle. They are the side-impact, frontal-offset impact, roof strength test, and rear crash protection/head restraint tests.

Frontal Offset Impact Test

The frontal offset impact is a test that, instead of a direct head-on collision, offsets the car from the testing barrier by 40 percent, which allows for a better analysis of the car’s structural strength than a full-frontal crash.

This test looks for different safety issues relating to the performance of seat belts and airbags since the test uses a faster deceleration rate, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performs full-frontal crash testing. In real-life accident situations, many of the crashes are offset.

It is a good idea for car buyers to compare the results of the two tests, as cars like the Chevrolet Venture received 4 stars, 5 being best, in the NHTSA tests while it received a “Poor” rating from the IIHS after doing badly in the frontal offset crash test.

Side Impact Test

The IIHS uses a test rig that simulates an SUV or pickup truck for the next test, which is the side impact. The test demands a lot from the car’s side airbags, if present, and structural integrity. Seat belts offer much less protection in side crashes.

Rear Crash Protection and Head Restraint Test

The rear crash and head restraint tests attach the driver’s seat to a sled and then mimic a rear-end collision at 20 mph. Low-to-moderate speed rear-ends crashes, although usually not causing serious injury, are quite common.

IIHS estimated that in 2005, approximately 25 percent of medical costs were for whiplash injuries.

Roof Strength Test

The roof strength evaluation is the most recent test addition. In the U.S., nearly 25 percent of fatal car crashes involved a rollover. Electronic stability control, lane departure warning alarms and side curtain airbags are some of the newer safety features that have significantly reduced rollovers.

Chevrolet Face-Off

For the IIHS’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2009, a face-off crash test was performed between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. The test was a 40 percent head-on crash at 40 mph.

Not surprisingly, the Bel Air’s front passenger compartment sustained extensive damages, and the Bel Air did not have the benefit of modern airbags and seat belts. The crash test dummy in the Bel Air recorded damages severe enough to cause fatal injuries to a real driver.

On the other hand, the 2009 Malibu kept its front passenger compartment intact, and the advanced seat belts and airbag protected the crash test dummy from injury.

The dummy in the Malibu recorded damages that would amount to a minor injury to the foot of a real driver.

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