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By Jim Adler October 5, 2015

As a car buyer, you want to ensure a vehicle is safe, and you’ve heard about auto safety ratings to guide you. But just what do auto safety ratings mean?

First, that depends on who issues them, since auto safety ratings come from a variety of sources. Among the best known are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal agency, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nonprofit group funded by auto insurers.

As part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, like the NHTSA, Safercar.gov also has valuable safety information for choosing — or avoiding — a car.

IIHS Safety Ratings

The IIHS conducts five tests to assess two important elements of auto safety: crash avoidance and mitigation (technology which can help prevent or reduce the severity of a crash) and crashworthiness (how well a vehicle protects occupants during a collision).

The five tests involve moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints. Based on these tests, a vehicle’s crashworthiness is rated as being good, acceptable, marginal or poor.

In terms of crash avoidance and mitigation, the IIHS assigns vehicles with front crash prevention systems ratings of basic, advanced or superior.

NHTSA Safety Ratings

According to Safercar.gov, the NHTSA’s five-star safety ratings system is the strictest one of all. Safety elements for cars or pickup trucks made in 2011 or later are subjected to strict ratings by the government agency.

What do the NHTSA’s five-star safety ratings mean? That depends on the type of test and the ratings.

A five-star frontal crash test rating means you have a 10% or less chance of serious injury in a front-end crash. A single-star frontal-crash rating means your risk is 46% worse.

The NHTSA also tests rollovers as well as side impacts. For the latter, it evaluates impacts on different sized crash-test dummies. The agency then assesses the potential for injuries from both the driver’s side and the passenger’s side of the vehicle.

Testing is done with crashes into a fixed barrier at 35 miles per hour and is evaluated by slow-motion video of the impact and its aftermath.

Crash avoidance technologies also are assessed, though not through testing. The agency instead pinpoints features that it points out to consumers, such as technology that alerts drivers when they’re getting too close to another vehicle.

The NHTSA doesn’t rate every vehicle every year, but rather selects vehicles to rate by their estimated sales volume. It’s been doing so for more than three decades.

As for Safercar.gov, it enables car buyers to search manufacturers and model years to compare safety ratings. Factors such as a vehicle’s weight and size are taken into account.

Other Safety Strategies

Besides checking safety ratings from such sources, consumers have other safety strategies at their disposal. One is to explore the Internet for buyer reviews and other information about vehicles they’re considering to purchase. People often do such research to compare prices, but comparing safety standards also is important.

Also, when a vehicle is purchased, buyers can register it with the NHTSA so they’ll receive an alert if a safety problem is found later or if a recall is issued. The agency provides an NHTSA app for this notification process, and also for consumers to submit complaints or concerns to the NHTSA.

The NHTSA also provides information on safety recalls via its Twitter and Facebook accounts.

It’s also a good idea to check out a car’s roof strength, since that can be a life-changing element in a rollover crash. The IIHS has been rating roofs since 2008.

Prospective car buyers also should determine if an older vehicle has ESC, or electronic stability control, to help maintain control on slippery or curved roads. Cars made since 2012 all have ESC as a standard feature, but some earlier vehicles also have it.

Other features also have been added to recent cars to improve safety, including improved airbags, lane departure warning (LDW) and forward collision warning (FCW).

Used car buyers should do the most checking, and that includes using services such as CarFax to search a vehicle’s title and then learn of its owners, maintenance and crash history.

You’re advised not to buy a vehicle that was in a severe crash. A mechanic can check out a potential purchase for you to ensure that won’t be a problem, as well as to make sure a car’s tires and brakes are in good condition.

The bottom line is not to buy until you’re ready — and you won’t be ready until you’ve fully evaluated the safety elements of the vehicle you’re considering.

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