Car Safety Star Ratings - What Are They Good For?


Car driving on highway.
Photo by Rodan Can on Unsplash

When purchasing a vehicle, many people use safety ratings as a determining factor when making their choice. For good reason - the inherent safety of a vehicle is hugely important and should be considered before a purchase. But what if those ratings weren't as trustworthy as we had been led to believe?


In an article for Vice, Aaron Gordon explores safety ratings, specifically in the United States. The States are the birthplace of vehicle safety ratings and yet, in recent years, the United States has struggled to keep up with other countries who themselves adopted safety rating systems. In short, the last decade or so has seen safety ratings more and more meaningless, with vehicle safety suffering as a result.


The history of vehicle safety ratings is fascinating, and one that Gordon traces with great detail. In the 70s, safety regulations were minimal and safety ratings non-existent. Car manufacturers believed that consumers didn't base their car-buying decisions on safety and, as a result, neglected to make safety a priority.


In the 1980s, the threshold manufacturers had to meet in order to pass safety testing was low, but Joan Claybrook, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decided that that didn't mean that the NHTSA couldn't conduct more difficult testing and publish the results. When a reduction in government funding jeopardized this effort, Claybrook broke away from NHTSA to create the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), publishing the Car Book, a compendium of vehicle testing results.


The book was hugely successful and ultimately forced car manufacturers to improve vehicle safety in order to meet the new demand for better safety ratings from consumers. This, in turn, elevated the level of vehicle safety industry-wide.


"American cars were safer than they had ever been before, likely saving thousands of lives every year and preventing tens of thousands of debilitating injuries, all for the cost of publishing information it already had."

In the years that followed, similar NCAP-type programs popped up in countries all around the world and everywhere they appeared, safety levels rose dramatically and have continued to improve year-over-year.


In the U.S., however, as Gordon documents, the success of safety ratings have stagnated in the past decade, to an alarming degree. A combination of political priorities and funding limitations has meant that tests have not been updated or improved in years. As a result, safety testing (and therefore safety ratings) are no longer an accurate representation of how safe a vehicle actually is. And the results, unfortunately, speak for themselves.


"Any way you slice the data, U.S. roads are getting deadlier while those of other developed nations, especially ones with robust NCAPs, are getting safer... Between 2010 and 2019, the EU reduced road fatalities by 23 percent. From 2010 to 2018, the U.S.'s road fatalities increased 11 percent."

What does this mean for consumers? Safety ratings may not be the straightforward confirmation of top safety performance that they believe them to be. This puts more onus on drivers to do research and look beyond the star rating system. In the long term, the U.S. will need to find a way to overhaul the NHTSA and safety-rating system... or risk falling far behind the rest of the auto industry.


For an in depth (and fascinating) look at the history of safety ratings and at their current decline in the United States, check out the original article by Aaron Gordon in Vice.

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