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Car safety ratings: Who does the testing and how is it measured?

Whether it is new crash avoidance or active safety systems, can manufacturers spend significant time and money boasting about safety features and ratings. Advances in technology have made automated features such as emergency braking and lane-keeping assist possible. As distracted driving is on the rise, these features can be life saving. But have you ever wondered how the safety ratings are calculated?

The U.S. has two major institutions that test and rate car safety, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Both organizations perform objective crash tests and safety feature reviews.

Testing organizations

The IIHS was reformed as an independent research organization in 1969, but for the decade before that it was run by three insurance companies. The IIHS tests focus on crash avoidance systems and crashworthiness. The crash avoidance tests review features designed to detect and prevent a crash, such as forward collision warning and pedestrian detection. In the crashworthiness tests six areas of the car are tested to see how each area performs in a collision. The crash tests focus on occupant protection and structural stability.

Formed in 1970, the NHTSA is a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. NHTSA tests use four different crash scenarios to evaluate how a vehicle performs in each collision type. Although the tests focus on different scenarios, there are a few constants in each test. The tests are performed using crash test dummies that weigh as much as an average sized adult male or female and any scenarios involving another vehicle use a car that weighs within 250 lbs of the car being tested.

Safety features to consider

Car safety is becoming more automated as accident avoidance systems use lasers, radars and cameras to gauge distances and monitor threats. Here are a few features available on most new vehicles.

· Brake assist: Detects panic stops and applies maximum braking force to reach the shortest possible stopping distance.

· Forward collision warning: Scans for cars ahead and alerts the driver with a visual or audible warning. This feature is often paired with automatic braking to stop the car if a collision is imminent.

· Adaptive cruise control: Maintains a safe following distance by automatically slowing down or speeding up the vehicle as needed.

· Blind spot warning: Uses radar or cameras to monitor blind spots and alerts the driver to threats with an audible or visual warning activated by using a turn signal or movement towards the threat.

· Lane keeping assist/departure warning: Alerts the driver to a lane departure by vibrating the steering wheel, flashing a dashboard warning or chiming. Some models automatically steer the car back into the lane.

When considering a new car purchase, owners interested in vehicle safety should take the time to read safety reviews from both the IIHS and NHTSA. Also keep in mind, although the offerings between brands are similar, each manufacturer will likely have their own unique name and not all features are offered in every trim package. While safety automation advances are beneficial, crash avoidance should start with safe driving habits.

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