Is your car as safe as you think? How to read crash test ratings

RUCKERSVILLE, Va. — When shopping for a car, just how good is a “good” crash rating? It could mean the difference between life and death.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s side-impact test showed that “you’re roughly 70 percent less likely to die or be seriously injured in a ‘good’ vehicle compared to a ‘poor’ vehicle” in a side-impact collision, said David Aylor with the IIHS.

But comparing cars’ crash test ratings might not be as simple as you think.

Even when two vehicles have a “good” rating in one front-end test, the smaller of the two vehicles could do very badly if the two were to collide, since the moderate front overlap test replicates a crash between two vehicles of the same weight.

“You can’t compare across classes,” Aylor said. “So that rating can’t be compared for a Smart car to an F-150.”

He said there is a safety penalty for driving a smaller, lighter car.

“You can’t beat physics, so mass is still going to win out,” Aylor said.

The federal government’s frontal crash test ratings also represent a crash between two vehicles weighing the same.

Staying safe gets even more complicated with older vehicles on the road. Drivers are holding onto their cars longer than ever before, with the average car on the road in 2016 over 11 years old, according to researchers at the firm IHS Markit.

A decade ago, electronic stability control was fairly new, and side air bags were just starting to come into the market. Aylor said used car shoppers who are eyeing an older car should look for those features.

Despite the advancements made in recent years, “I think there are safe cars out there, even 10, 11 years ago,” he said.

Still, many of the cars people are driving are even older than that. Over 60 million vehicles are at least 16 years old, and that category is only growing. The safety of those cars is a mixed bag.

When the IIHS did frontal crash tests in the 1990s, “there was a lot of occupant compartment collapse,” Aylor said. That era’s Mitsubishi Galant sedan and Pontiac Trans Sport minivan stood out as particularly poor performers in their testing.

Perhaps most surprising is how one classic car stacked up. You would think that with size on its side, a big, bold American icon would cause major damage to a modern car. But that’s not what happened in a 2009 test, which showed the danger of cars that were designed primarily with style in mind.

A 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air tested by the IIHS lacked safety features such as crumple zones. Because of that, a significant amount of energy was absorbed in the occupant compartment when it was slammed into a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu, “which led to really high injury risk for the dummy in that test,” Aylor said.

Even though the ’59 Chevy was two feet longer than the ’09 model, the two cars weighed roughly the same. The results were stunning, with one of the ’59 Chevy’s front tires left jammed underneath the dashboard.

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