How Is Car Safety Tested? [Crash Tests Explained]

Learn how car safety is tested to get an idea of how safe your vehicle is.

Driving becomes second nature. Most people get behind the wheel and think about nothing more than where they’re heading — or daydream the journey away and wonder how they go there alive.

But car safety on the roads is a serious subject. According to a 2019 study by the National Safety Council, the chances of dying in a car crash in America are 1 in 107. That doesn’t sound like much, but your chances of being involved in a non-fatal accident are far higher.

On average, there are almost 7 million vehicle crashes every year in the US alone, ranging from a minor bump at a stoplight to a fatal head-on collision. In 2019, there were nearly 229 million licensed drivers in America, a figure that has no doubt increased in succeeding years as the new generation of drivers hits the roads.

Considering how dangerous driving can be, what testing do automobiles go through before they’re granted the roadworthy seal of approval? Let’s explore.

What Testing Do Automobiles Go Through for Safety Standards?

We’re going to highlight the various components of a vehicle normally evaluated in the safety tests performed by consumer protection organizations such as the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS).

Typical Safety Features

Automobiles are equipped with multiple safety features that aren’t always visible to the naked eye. Most of us know that seatbelts, ABS, and even hazard warning lights are car safety features, but there are many other systems and devices integrated into the makeup of a vehicle.

Below is a list of the ones you might not have thought about before:

  • Crumple zones — Areas of a vehicle designed to deform and crumple in a collision to absorb some of the energy of the impact, preventing it from being transmitted to the occupants.
  • Seat belt pre-tensioners – A mechanism that retracts some of the webbing of a seatbelt when a collision occurs, tightening the seatbelt to restrain occupants quickly and reducing the amount they are thrown forward by the impact.
  • Side cushion airbags – Airbags integrated into the side roof section of the interior to enhance protection for the head and upper torso in the event of a side impact or rollover.

Safety features should protect anyone inside the vehicle from serious injury, but there’s only so much they can do — especially if the collision is a high-impact one. Even so, safety features are advancing with every passing year even though the procedure for testing an automobile’s core safety features hasn’t changed much.

Safety Ratings

In the US, the NHTSA and IIHS conduct safety testings on vehicles before they make it to the road.

The NHTSA is funded by the US Department of Transportation and the IIHS by insurance companies and other insurance associations. Insurance companies need to know a vehicle is roadworthy before offering full coverage, and the government funds testing to ensure public safety.

The NHTSA awards different safety ratings to the IIHS. The NHTSA will give a rating out of five stars and conduct front and side crash tests. They also conduct a rollover test to give their overall safety rating out of five.

The IIHS serves all of North America, including Canada. It goes more in-depth and conducts tests that assess a vehicle’s seats, head restraints, and small and moderate front overlap crashworthiness. Rather than using a star rating system, they award a poor, marginal, acceptable, or good safety rating.

Both the NHTSA and IIHS are respected ratings; however, the IIHS goes into more detail and uses more realistic front and side-impact crash tests. By comparison, the NHTSA employs sled and wall front and side impacts, which are less representative of real-life crashes.

Crash Tests

 Crash tests are the primary safety tests vehicles undergo. These tests assess the effectiveness of crumple zones and seatbelts and how they protect the human body.

Expensive crash test dummies designed to precisely replicate the movements of the human body are used. Costing thousands of dollars, the dummies are so intricately designed that they even have lifelike spines with discs as humans would.

There are three types of crash tests that a car or truck must pass before it’s considered roadworthy:

Side Impact Test

A side impact test looks at how the car reacts in a relatively high-speed side-impact collision. An automated 1,400 kg (3,086 lbs / 1.54-tonne) sled with a deformable bumper impacts the side of a vehicle at 35 mph (56 km/h), while sophisticated cameras capture it all.

Side-impact tests mostly assess the potentiality of head, chest, lower abdomen, lower spine, and pelvis injuries.

Frontal Impact Test

In this test, the vehicle is driven into a fixed barrier at 35mph.

Frontal impact tests are designed to replicate a crash between two vehicles of a similar size and primarily look at the potential for head, neck, chest, and femur injuries.

Rollover Test

A collision isn’t the only type of accident that can occur on the roads. SUVs, pickup trucks, and other vehicles with a high center of gravity, in particular, are prone to rolling at high speeds.

Rollover tests look at how top-heavy a vehicle is and how well balanced it is in extreme and sudden maneuvers, awarding based on its overall rollover resistance.

Crash Avoidance and Mitigation

A collision-avoidance system or collision mitigation system, as it’s sometimes called, is an advanced driver-assistance system designed to prevent collisions or reduce their severity.

In its basic form, the system monitors the speed of the vehicle and the vehicle in front of it, as well as the distance between the two, and provides a warning to the driver if the vehicles get too close so that he or she can take prompt action to avoid a collision.

Various technologies and sensors such as cameras, radar, and sometimes LIDAR are used to detect an imminent crash, while GPS sensors can detect fixed dangers such as approaching stop signs through a location database. Pedestrian detection has increasingly become a mainstay feature.

The NHTSA, IIHS, and other similar organizations test the effectiveness of crash prevention systems under various scenarios, including:

  • Driving the vehicle towards a solid fixed structure at a low to moderate speed to see if the vehicle stops or substantially reduces its speed before making an impact.
  • Having a crash test dummy cross in front of the moving vehicle to see if the vehicle will stop or mitigate the impact.
  • Having a dummy walk beside the vehicle to assess what happens when a person walking on the shoulder of a road strays into traffic.
  • Having a child dummy dart out into a street from behind a parked vehicle.

Vehicles with standard or optional front crash prevention systems, especially those featuring vehicle-to-vehicle communication, vehicle-to-pedestrian evaluation, and automatic braking, are typically rated higher than those without.

Headlight Evaluation

Around half of all fatal car crashes in North America occur in the dark, with over 25 percent occurring on unlit roads. Headlights clearly play a major role in preventing night-time crashes; however, some perform better than others.

Differences in the type of bulb used, headlight technology, and even how the beams are directed and aimed all affect how much useful light is emitted, hence why a headlight evaluation is an integral part of most car safety programs.

Both the low beam and high beam headlights are evaluated by measuring their reach as the vehicle travels straight and on curves. Sensors installed on the test track measure how far the light extends and illuminates.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to cars, all people seem to ever want to know is speed, fuel consumption, and reliability. However, safety is just as important, if not more.

Fortunately, modern vehicles have gotten a lot safer over the decades. Not only are they designed and engineered to protect the driver and passengers in the event of a collision or rollover better than ever, but they are also tested rigorously using state-of-the-art crash tests.

Everything from the car or truck’s structural integrity and headlights to its balance and crash avoided technologies are tested by highly reputable consumer protection institutes such as the NHTSA and IIHS.

Even though crash statistics in the US and around the world are high, the chances of incurring a severe injury are lower than even ten years ago. Car manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve the safety of their vehicles.

If you found this guide informative, you might want to know how to buy a used car, what is good mileage for a used car, and how much you should spend on your first car.