How Vehicle Safety Ratings Are Determined

Buying a car means envisioning yourself behind the wheel, driving to and from various destinations—maybe you even picture the windows rolled down and the radio playing your favorite songs as you cruise across town.

Safety text on top of vehicle tires

But what’s more difficult is considering how a vehicle will fare in an accident before you buy it. Though – knock on wood – hopefully you’ll never find yourself involved in any sort of crash, it’s important to acknowledge that it can happen. Only then can you thoroughly evaluate various manufacturers and models based on their safety credentials.

Here’s more on how vehicle safety ratings are determined, and how you can find a safe car at a price suiting your budget.

How the NHTSA Calculates Crash Test Ratings

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducts crash test ratings meant to protect drivers on the road and help buyers make informed purchasing decisions whenever they’re picking out their next vehicle. A good rule of thumb to remember: The more stars on a scale of one to five, the safer the vehicle.

Here’s a rundown from Car and Driver of the tests conducted by the NHTSA on newly released models:

  • Full frontal crash test: A vehicle crashes into a barrier at 35 miles per hour to simulate a collision between two comparably sized cars. This test measures the likelihood for driver and passenger injury in this scenario using crash test dummies.

  • Side barrier crash test: A static vehicle sustains a side collision from a 3,015-pound barrier at 38.5 miles per hour to gauge the likelihood of injury for both front and rear passengers.

  • Side pole crash test: This test simulates a side-impact collision with a pole at 20 miles per hour, mean to assess the driver’s chance of injury in a situation where they swerve off the road and hit a pole.

  • Rollover rating: A mathematical formula using vehicle width and center of gravity calculates what would likely happen in a rollover situation on the highway.

Vehicles earn an overall rating ranging from one to five stars, though consumers can also view the results for each individual assessment, too. To safety-conscious drivers, these NHTSA ratings can help differentiate manufacturers and models so they can achieve peace of mind when they do finally move forward on purchasing a vehicle.

Finding a Safe Car at an Affordable Price

There are a number of misconceptions about buying a car on a budget—like that people with bad credit won’t be able to secure financing, or that they’ll have to settle for an old or unsafe vehicle to pinch pennies. Neither of these things are necessarily true! In today’s market, some lenders like RoadLoans offer flexible options, even on subprime car loans for people with a less-than-perfect credit history.

It’s also entirely possible to make sure you still get the keys to a safe, reliable vehicle, even if it’s not the newest model fresh off the assembly line. You can still use NHTSA ratings as a guideline, whether you’re trying to shop new or find a new-to-you pre-owned vehicle at an affordable price.

As many industry experts point out, it’s possible to get behind the wheel of cars and SUVs that’ve earned “good” and “acceptable” safety ratings for around or less than $12,000. In terms of the NHTSA ratings, this means the vehicles must have earned four or five stars in the crash tests.

The key to finding a safe vehicle you can afford, no matter what your budget or credit score, is doing your research ahead of time. Make a list of manufacturers and models with a reputation for solid crash test scores, even on used models. Shop around diligently and always take vehicles you’re considering for a test drive first.


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