How Safe is Your Car–New Grading System Uses Crash Data

Millions of Americans will kick off summer road trips this weekend. But an auto safety expert from The Auto Professor says many top-rated cars are not as safe as people think they are.

That’s because the 5-star system used by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) falls short on one important laboratory test. It does not test what happens when a car collides head-on with a larger vehicle, like an SUV.

“Few Americans recognize this fatal flaw in the star rating system,” said Dr. Norma Hubele, a data scientist who has served as an expert witness in more than 100 automobile safety cases.

NHTSA is upfront about this limitation, but few Americans read the fine print when car shopping or choosing a rental car. If they did, they would know that NHTSA’s safety ratings apply only in cases when a vehicle hits another one of similar size and weight.

“People think they’re making a smart choice when they buy a 5-star rated car,” said Hubele, professor emeritus at Arizona State University. “But that rating has nothing to do with real, everyday risk.”

Free tool helps consumers make informed choices

In contrast to its lab tests, NHTSA has collected data on all fatal crashes in the United States since the 1970s. However, the public had no way to access this Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data until late last year.

That’s when Hubele and a team of data scientists transformed millions of FARS data points into a free service they call the Auto Grades. Consumers now can input the make, model and year of their vehicle, and the online tool produces an A through F grade based on real crash data, not lab tests.

Custom grades also are available based on a person’s gender and age.

“The star system made sense when it first started. But now we can and should do more to ensure that everyone walks away from a crash,” said Hubele.

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