In Auto Grades, Car Safety Comparisons, Car Safety Rating Systems

Top Safety Picks by IIHS Can Be Difficult to Understand

If you are looking for IIHS’s Top Safety Pick, you are interested in finding the safest car for yourself or your loved one. As a lot (literally) rides on auto safety ratings, we’d like you to know a few things about IIHS Top Safety Pick ratings, where they come from, and how Auto Grades® are more meaningful.

What are Top Safety Picks? Where do they come from?

To understand the IIHS rating system, there are three things you need to know: who are they, how they base their rating system, and the limitations. Then, understand that there are better alternatives.

First, Know about the IIHS

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a non-profit organization supported by insurance companies and associations. They began conducting their own standardized laboratory crash testing in 1995, as a supplement to the federal standardized laboratory crash testing Star Rating System. IIHS introduced their list of new vehicle TOP SAFETY PICKs in 2006, and expanded with the TOP SAFETY PICK+ rating in 2013.

Second, Know about the IIHS Rating Systems

Vehicles are selected based on the results of their crash tests plus an assessment of the safety technology available on tested vehicles.

Notice that the tests are based on laboratory crash tests with dummies. Not real people. And new vehicles need to earn ratings of Good in these crashes. Is Good good enough?

Also, the ratings are only among vehicles of the same size and class. There are 9 different classifications, from Small Cars to Large SUV’s. The Auto Professor doesn’t believe that this is realistic: We don’t have the option of only getting into accidents with the same type of car that we are driving. What if you are driving a small car and a large SUV hits you? Why shouldn’t car safety ratings be able to be compared across all sizes and classes? Level the playing field.

Third, Know the Limitations

As you’ve concluded by now, the standardized testing conducted by IIHS comes with some significant limitations:

  • Their ratings are based on a few laboratory tests.
  • The rating system has changed over the years. Therefore, the TOP SAFETY PICK rating for a 2017 model cannot necessarily be compared to a TOP SAFETY PICK rating in 2019.
  • Their most important crash test, the frontal off-set, simulates a collision with a vehicle of a similar size and class. In other words, the test results give no information about what happens if, for example, a small sedan collides with a large SUV.

IIHS clearly states this last major limitation:

Models that earn TOP SAFETY PICK+ or TOP SAFETY PICK are the best vehicle choices for safety within size categories. Size and weight influence occupant protection in serious crashes. Larger, heavier vehicles generally afford more protection than smaller, lighter ones. Thus, a small car that’s a TOP SAFETY PICK+ or TOP SAFETY PICK doesn’t necessarily afford more protection than a bigger car that doesn’t earn the award.

But … do people read this disclaimer? Or understand it? Is this carried forward into all the ads run by the manufacturers? Not so much.

For Car Safety Ratings, A Better Alternative Exists

Laboratory rating systems are always limited. When IIHS TOP SAFETY PICKs are selected based on the results of their laboratory crash tests, the awards are always within class and size categories. As a result, the safety performance of a small car selected as a TOP SAFETY PICK cannot be compared to the safety performance of a full-size sedan or compact SUV.

At The Auto Professor, we believe that consumers need to know real safety information based on sharing the road with all vehicles, regardless of class and size. Our Auto Grades are based on real crash data, unlimited by class and size categories. For example, the Auto Grade of a small car can be compared to the Auto Grade of a full-size sedan or a compact SUV. They are all rated on the same scale. No limitations.

Here is how our Auto Grades compare to some of the cars selected as 2019 IIHS TOP SAFETY PICKS:

The important takeaways based on this example comparison:

  1. IIHS ratings should only be compared within size and class categories. For example, even though the 2019 Hyundai Elantra is a TOP SAFETY PICK+, it does not necessarily offer more protection than a 2019 Honda Accord with the lesser award of TOP SAFETY PICK. In fact, IIHS specifically cautions against comparing safety ratings of vehicles across size and class.
  2. Auto Grades can be compared for any vehicle, across all sizes and classes. The Auto Grades are clear and useful, without restrictions.

Auto Grades: Real, Useful Information

In contrast to IIHS safety picks, The Auto Professor’s Auto Grades are based on crashes that occurred on actual roads, instead of simulated crashes in a lab. We believe that consumers deserve to have real information that can be used to make any comparisons. This means that the ratings, expressed as Auto Grades from A (the highest track record of protection) to F (the lowest track record), can be compared across all vehicles, regardless of size and class, and for any model year. Considering a 2016 compact SUV or a 2017 full-size SUV? The Auto Grades can help you decide.

You may choose to start your car search by looking at the IIHS TOP SAFETY PICKS, but you should always cross-check The Auto Professor’s Auto Grades to get the real on-the-road ranking to protect your family and the ones you love.

Try It Yourself

Use the easy and free Auto Grade search bar below to search for your own car safety ratings.

Driving Deeper

Learn more about these rating systems here:

Working together to create a world where everyone walks away from a crash.