Coined “Stars on Cars,” the idea of including ratings on window stickers (also known as Monroney labels) was hatched by Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio. Said DeWine, “Vital safety information needs to be accessible to the consumer when they need it most, at the dealership when purchasing decisions are made.” The ratings are currently available on NHTSA’s website, www.safercar.gov, but are often absent from the showroom floor.
The transportation bill calls for the new window stickers as soon as the 2007 model year, but one automaker, Honda, has taken the lead by voluntarily including the ratings on all of its 2006 model year vehicles. Every 2006 Honda and Acura car and light truck will prominently display front and side crash-test scores as well as rollover ratings.
Additional safety provisions in the bill include new rules for roof strength, to replace outdated standards originally set in the 1970s. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will also develop a new way to conduct rollover testing and to propose new rules that would cut rollover fatalities by 2009. In response to limited incidents of child strangulation, regulations will require a redesign of power window switches to prevent activation by small children, and studies will be conducted to learn how to prevent back-over deaths (where kids are accidentally backed-over in driveways). Additionally, the effects of tire aging will be studied, 15-passenger vans will no longer be excluded from the list of vehicles to be crash tested, and door lock standards will be improved to further limit passenger ejection during collisions.
Understanding NHTSA Ratings
NHTSA performs full frontal crash tests, where vehicles are fitted with crash dummies and driven into a wall at 35 mph, and side-impact tests, where a 3,015-pound sled is driven into the side of a parked test car at 38.5 mph. Scores for crashworthiness are awarded with one to five stars, with one star for a frontal crash suggesting at least a 46 percent chance or greater of serious injury, while five stars suggests an injury risk of 10 percent or less.
Ratings for the side impact test are slightly different: one star represents at least a twenty-six percent or greater chance of injury and five stars represents a risk of five percent or less. NHTSA also provides rollover ratings, combining a calculation of the vehicle’s center of gravity and its track width with the vehicle’s performance in a quick-maneuver driving test.
In some cases, when something unexpected occurs during a test, the star rating won’t necessarily change, but NHTSA will attach a “safety concern” notice to the vehicle in addition to its final rating.
Understanding IIHS Ratings
There are two primary organizations that conduct crash tests and rank vehicles accordingly. NHTSA will provide the star ratings soon to be prominently displayed on window stickers, and the other, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), is a non-profit group that is supported by insurance companies. The IIHS ranks each vehicle from Poor to Good, with exceptional vehicles labeled a Best Pick. Car shoppers will benefit from having NHTSA stars available at the dealer, but they should also be aware of IIHS ratings, which are based on slightly different methodologies.
Instead of NHTSA’s full frontal test, IIHS performs offset frontal crashes. After being fitted with crash dummies, the test vehicle reaches 40 mph and strikes a deformable barrier. However, only the front driver’s side takes the hit, so all of the crash energy must be absorbed by a smaller area of the vehicle’s structure – the result is a tougher test.
Side impact tests are conducted at 31 mph, with a perpendicular impact from a 3,300-lb. deformable barrier that is designed to mimic a larger and taller vehicle, such as a pickup truck or SUV. Given the number of such vehicles on the road today, IIHS believes that this bigger barrier best represents real-world accident scenarios.
Rear crashes are conducted to evaluate seat and headrest design and the likelihood of whiplash injuries. These tests mirror the effect of being hit from behind at 20 mph by a vehicle of equal weight. And finally, this being an insurance company-based group, four low-speed impact tests, replicating what happens to drivers in congested traffic every day, are conducted to determine front and rear bumper efficacy and repair costs.
“Stars on Cars” is an idea that is as brilliant as it is simple. Many car buyers perform due diligence prior to ever setting foot on a dealer’s lot, but that’s where the game begins. With a dizzying array of vehicles to choose from, salespeople spouting about rebate offers and options, and window stickers that tell you everything about a car – except how it performs in safety tests – it’s easy to lose track of this vital information before signing on the dotted line.
Safety should be a primary concern for shoppers, and with crash test scores being clearly marked on each new vehicle’s window sticker, it will be much easier to take this factor into consideration when choosing a new car or light truck.
Photos courtesy of the IIHS, American Honda and DaimlerChrysler