The Impact of NHTSA's New Five-Star Crash Ratings

The ripple effect began quickly today after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its first ratings under a new crash-test system. Everyone from government officials to automakers to competing agencies has been weighing in on what they mean.

The government’s stance is that the years it spent researching the new system and testing procedures has paid off for car shoppers. “Having one overall score is the biggest consumer-friendly upgrade,” said NHTSA administrator David Strickland.

During all of the research and focus groups that went into the new ratings system, the single rating was most desired, Strickland said.

Getting a single five-star rating will be a good promotion for automakers, too.

It took Hyundai exactly an hour to put out a press release crowing that its 2011 Sonata sedan earned a five-star rating under the new system. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the Sonata along with the 2011 BMW 5 Series are the only two vehicles to earn both a five-star safety rating and a Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. BMW’s press release followed 27 minutes after Hyundai’s release.

“Consumers shouldn’t look at one set of tests and think that’s it,” said IIHS spokesman Russ Rader. “The government and the IIHS test for different things, and they actually complement each other.” While the new NHTSA scores emphasize the strength of safety equipment like seat belts and airbags, Rader points out that IIHS focuses on structural stability in crashes. The crash tests the two agencies perform are also different.

That difference drastically changed the standing of Nissan’s popular Versa. It received the top score of Good in all IIHS crash tests, but received the lowest score of any vehicle in NHTSA’s initial round of testing. Likewise, Subaru’s entire lineup has garnered Top Safety Pick status from IIHS, but the Legacy and Outback only scored four stars in NHTSA’s revised tests.

Besides conflicting scores, another problem will be the complete lack of scores on most new 2011 vehicles on new-car lots.

The section of a new car’s window sticker that’s designated for crash-test scores will remain blank and instead point consumers to, the government’s website. Once there they’ll most likely not find NHTSA crash-test ratings on most of the industry’s 300 or more new-car models for 2011.

“We tried to select the vehicle population that covers the largest number of people,” Strickland said. “In the past we’ve covered 85% of the buying population, but it will take time to catch back up to that number.”

The agency has a budget of $12 million per year for testing new vehicles. The initial slate of 33 nameplates included three of the best-selling cars in the country, the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata and Toyota Camry. It didn’t include popular trucks such as the Ford F-150 and smaller cars like the Toyota Corolla. However, those vehicles are planned for testing later in 2011.

At the start of 2011 it will be a bit difficult to explain to consumers that the car they’re interested in hasn’t been crash-tested by the government yet.

The government says it will finish evaluating around 60 cars this year. IIHS says it will complete testing of 85 cars in 2010 for frontal, side, rear and roof-strength tests.

The 2010 ratings will still live on at, and shoppers will also be able to find both government and IIHS ratings on the Research pages of
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