When purchasing a new vehicle people look at a lot of different factors. If safety is your main concern, you have to rely on data from NHTSA and IIHS. On their websites you can find out how any vehicle fared in front, rear and side impact crash test. You're looking for a five-star rating from the NHTSA and a "Good" rating from the IIHS. The alternative would be to crash the cars ourselves to see how well they fare, and while some of us are crazy enough to do it, the rest would rather these two agencies handle the ditry work. We take their results at face value, but are they really accurate? Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business professors David Harless and George Hoffer decided to take the data to another level.
The professors came up with a clever way to test whether or not crash tests work: compare fatality rates for vehicles that went from a lower crash test score to a higher score after a redesign. When looking at the passenger car segment, the tests proved very accurate. When comparing a five star NHTSA rating to a one star rating the driver death rate rose 18%. Going from a two star to a five star netted a whopping 36% decrease in fatalities. When comparing data from IIHS, cars rated "Poor" saw 43% higher death rates than vehicles rated "Good". Trucks and SUVs, however, didn't see the same effect. Tests came up statistically flat between low-rated vehicles and high-rated vehicles.
Thanks for the tip, Kirk!
In the end, crash tests do matter if you're looking to buy a car. For SUVs and trucks, perhaps the driver may be the biggest difference between safety and harm. An amazing 95% of all new vehicles receive five star ratings from the NHTSA, which has pretty much rendered those tests useless anyway. The Department of Transportation is looking at ways to make its tests tougher and give automakers that produce truly safe vehicles something to brag about again.