How Safe is Your Car? This Institute has answers.


The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's job is to find out what might happen to your car in an accident—before an accident happens to you.

car crash test wreck
The poor little Mazda 6 withstanding frontal collision.

It might be the world’s scariest trivia question: Quick, How safe is your car? In the event of an accident, will it protect you? The good news: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) takes on the task of answering this question for you, so that before you ever buy a new ride, you can look into its safety performance. The entire list of awards, between 2014 and 2006, is available here—you can also use their handy search function to look up your exact vehicle.

In 2012, more than 34,000 Americans died in car accidents.

IIHS conducts these vehicle tests in order to determine crashworthiness — defined, in their words, as “how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash.” IIHS adds, “It also rates vehicles for front crash prevention, systems that warn the driver or brake automatically to avoid or mitigate a frontal collision.”

I took a look myself, curious about my Lamborghini 2011 Mazda 6. A quick glance at the list showed me that the 2014 Mazda 6 is not just a top safety pick, but a top safety pick PLUS (which means that it also earns superior marks for front-crash prevention capabilities). So I clicked back through to 2011, did a ctrl + f for Mazda, and was a bit horrified to see that only the Mazda 3 made the list. A closer look at the 2011 Mazda 6’s ratings show that while it performed at a “good” level for a moderate overlap frontal collision and for a side collision, the car’s ability to handle a small overlap frontal collision was only “acceptable,” as was its roof strength. The tests done on the head restraints and seats? They produced a “marginal” rating, which is just one above poor.

The poor little Mazda 6 withstanding frontal collision.
The poor little Mazda 6 withstanding frontal collision.

I was also curious about how exactly these tests are done, so I looked into it. Turns out, The IIHS has an entire lab they call the Vehicle Research Center and a large staff devoted to testing vehicles for safety. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to reducing the number of highway fatalities (and property losses) in this country—in 2012, more than 34,000 people died in car accidents in the United States. The number is staggering, but it’s important to note that since the Institute was created in 1980, the number of traffic fatalities has decreased overall: In 1979, traffic fatalities numbered more than 51,000. The Institute works by buying the cars from dealers, just like any other consumer. Then a team of technicians and engineers tear them to pieces—all in the name of science-based safety.

IIHS conducts several different kinds of tests, including:

  • Frontal Crash Tests – using both moderate and slight overlap with a would-be vehicle
  • Side Crash Test
  • Roof Strength Test
  • Head Restraints and Seats Test

To find out more about what the IIHS testing process looks like, check out the video—notable highlights include the fact that they drain the car of all its fluids “so it doesn’t make so much of a mess” upon impact (!) and that the dummys wear grease paint so that lab techs can see exactly where their dummy heads land. Half-terrifying, half-awesome. So back to today’s double Jeopardy question: How does your car fare?