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Understanding Car Safety Ratings: The Frontal Crash Test

A frontal crash is the most common crash resulting in a fatality. Both IIHS and NHTSA performs a frontal crash test in their car safety ratings evaluation.

Understanding Car Safety Ratings: The Frontal Crash Test

When you’re buying a vehicle it’s important to consider the crash ratings. Crashworthiness of individual models varies greatly. There are two different testing agencies that perform the tests - the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The IIHS evaluates a vehicle’s crashworthiness with five tests; moderate overlap front, small overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraints and seats. NHTSA rates vehicles with a 5-star safety rating - vehicles earn a rating of 1 to 5 stars in frontal crash and side crash performance as well as rollover resistance. Vehicles also earn an overall rating, which indicates how the individual ratings combine to reflect overall safety. In this post we’ll take a closer look at the Frontal Crash Test.

What is a Frontal Crash Test?

A frontal crash is the most common crash resulting in a fatality. The NHTSA crashes vehicles head-on into a solid barrier and the IIHS conducts a frontal-offset crash into a deformable barrier that mimics another vehicle. Experts say that too many models are getting high scores from NHTSA and the differences in the models aren’t reflected in the ratings.

NHTSA’s Frontal Crash Test

Passenger vehicles are crashed at 35 mph into a rigid barrier that covers the full width of a vehicle. The frontal crash rating is an evaluation of injury to the head, neck, chest, and legs of the driver and right front passenger. The crash rating shows a crash between two similar vehicles and those that are from the same weight class, plus or minus 250 pounds. A full-width test is more demanding of safety belts and airbags, while an offset test like the one IIHS runs is more demanding of the vehicle’s structure.

The IIHS Frontal Crash Tests

Moderate Overlap Frontal Test

A vehicle travels at 40 mph toward a barrier with a deformable face made of aluminum honeycomb. The barrier is just over two feet tall and a Hybrid III dummy representing an average-size man is positioned in the driver seat. Forty percent of the vehicle hits the barrier on the driver side.


Small Overlap Frontal Test

In 2012 a small overlap frontal crash test was created by IIHS. The test replicates what happens when the front corner of a vehicle collides with another vehicle or an object like a tree or utility pole. The crash puts safety belt and airbags to the test, because occupants move forward and to the side of the vehicle when it crashes. The vehicle travels at 40 mph toward a 5-foot-tall rigid barrier and 25 percent of the total width of the vehicle strikes the barrier on the driver side. Most modern vehicles have safety cages encapsulating the driver and crush zones help manage the crash energy, which reduces the force on the driver. To provide effective protection, the safety cage needs to resist crash forces that aren’t tempered by crush-zone structures.

What Do Frontal Crash Test Results Mean in Car Safety Ratings:

In looking at 14 years worth of ratings, a driver in a vehicle that was rated good in the moderate overlap test is 46% less likely to die in a frontal crash, compared with a driver of a vehicle rated poor. If you own a vehicle that is rated acceptable or marginal, you’re 33% less likely to die than a driver in a vehicle rated poor.

Both safety ratings should be considered, because they provide a total picture of the frontal crashworthiness of the vehicle.

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