Although they’re not without their detractors, the Top Safety Pick awards from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety still represent something like a “seal of approval” for many customers. Along with the New Car Assessment Program run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—which uses “star” ratings for its crash-test evaluations—the IIHS effort is one of the two most-watched third-party safety evaluations in the country; in other words, drivers take it very seriously.
How seriously? When the Institute developed a new test of vehicle roof strength in 2010, requiring a significantly higher level of protection in rollovers, automakers actually made changes on the fly—instead of following the “normal” timing for vehicle redesigns—to ensure their products would still pass the new evaluation and earn Top Safety Pick status (even on vehicles that would have still have received five-star ratings from NHTSA without modifications). For those who are curious, the IIHS’ current roof-strength test requires a vehicle to withstand a metal plate being pushed against its roof with a force equal to four times its weight, without being deformed by more than five inches.
The IIHS evaluates performance in three other crash scenarios as well. To determine how a vehicle stands up to frontal impacts, the Institute test crashes each one at 40 mph into a barrier that’s offset from what would be a head-on collision. Experts then check the vehicle’s cabin to see how well it maintained its integrity, examine data from a driver’s-seat crash-test dummy representing a male in the 50th percentile for size, and watch slow-motion video recordings of the tests to examine the performance of the seatbelts and other components of a vehicle’s restraint system.
In side-impact evaluations, the vehicle is slammed with a barrier moving at 31 mph. Here, the IIHS ratings are based on the extent of “injuries” to a pair of crash-test dummies representing women in the 5th percentile for size. Also under scrutiny: the performance of a vehicle’s head-protection measures and the extent of damage to its structure. Notably, the barrier used in this part of the testing has been specifically engineered to represent a pickup or SUV to take into account some of the most potentially dangerous scenarios.