When manufacturers get a 5-star crash rating for one of their models, the klieg lights and publicity klaxon get thorough workouts. Those tiny ten-sided polygons have gotten to mean so much to consumers that it's not unusual for a carmaker to drop a few hundred large on prime time commercial space and 60-point text to convey the message. Well, not to deflate anyone's... airbag... but Airbag Solutions has broken down the test methodology and what the results mean in real-world cases. It in no way demeans the quality of the rating system or the work done by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as well as similar tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but it does show that ultimately the ratings apply to a narrower set of circumstances than one might have thought. For instance, crash test dummies replicate effects only for adults -- babies, kids, and teenagers don't count. If you're in a crash at more than 40 mph, or if you hit a car with a weight differential of more than 250 lbs, the rating scale doesn't apply. One would assume that a 5-star car at 38 mph would still be better in a crash at 70 mph than a 3-star car, but there's a lot of gray area around the well-defined boundaries of the protocols.
[Source: Airbag Solutions]

“5 Stars”...How Safe Is That?

What exactly does the government “5 Star Crash Rating” mean? You won’t believe the answer!! If you’re in an accident, these ratings may not help you.

Almost every car company proudly displays their “5 Star Safety Crash Rating”, each manufacturer boasting their cars are safer than the others. But what does it all mean to you? How do they determine safety and how do they come up with a star program? Does a vehicle with a less than 5 star rating really mean it’s not safe to drive?

Let me begin to explain what they are all talking about. The ratings are determined by crash dummies, wired with sensors, placed in vehicles front and rear seats, and crashed into barriers to simulate an accident. But before we get into the particulars, let’s first understand the parameters.

1. The tests are conducted at speeds of 35 to 38.5 mph. Wait a minute.....35-38.5 mph? Who drives 35-38.5 mph. when the rest of the world is traveling at 45-75 mph? The government safety ratings do not cover anything over 38.5 mph. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety raises the bar though...they test at 40mph; a full 1 1⁄2 mile per hour faster...zoom, zoom.

2. Crash dummies only simulate full size adults, not teens, not children, not infants. Aren’t teenagers, children and infants passengers too? Why don’t they count in the ‘rating’ system?The crash dummies are wearing seat belts in all cases, front and rear seats...(everyone in vehicles always wears their seat belts, don’t they?).

3. The crash dummies are wired to measure injuries to head, neck, chest, pelvis, legs and feet, but all these findings are not included in the rating. The ratings only measure head and chest injuries for frontal crashes and head injuries only for side crashes (evidently, other injuries are not serious enough to count in a government study).

4. Impact assumptions are for similar vehicles, differing no more than 250 lbs. This means if you are driving a small, full size or luxury car and you hit an SUV or a minivan...the rating doesn’t count (and it certainly doesn’t count if you happen to hit a tractor trailer...those crashes might change the star ratings).

5. Finally, the rating is only referring to injuries that require immediate hospitalization or are life-threatening.

How about rear-end crashes, what are the ratings for that? Well, here’s what the government says about that:

“NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program has a limited budget and must
concentrate its ratings on front and side-impact crashes which every year are
responsible for the highest percentage of deaths and serious injuries.”

Here is a summary of the ratings we so proudly hold valuable...

For frontal crash ratings

5 stars
= 10 percent or less chance of serious injury
4 stars
= 11 percent to 20 percent chance of serious injury
3 stars
= 21 percent to 35 percent chance of serious injury
2 stars
= 36 percent to 45 percent chance of serious injury
1 star
= 46 percent or greater chance of serious injury

For side crash ratings

5 stars
= 5 percent or less chance of serious injury
4 stars
= 6 percent to 10 percent chance of serious injury
3 stars
= 11 percent to 20 percent chance of serious injury
2 stars
= 21 percent to 25 percent chance of serious injury
1 star
= 26 percent or greater chance of serious injury

...and here’s what this all means to you.

1) If you happen to be in a crash faster than 38.5 mph, forget about the rating scales altogether!

2) If you are a teen, child or infant sitting anywhere in the car, forget about the rating scale altogether!

3) If you hit any vehicle that is larger, smaller, or not almost exactly what you are driving, forget about the rating scale altogether!

4) If you are not wearing your seat belt, forget about the rating scale altogether!

5) If someone at the accident scene says “you look fine”, forget about the rating scale altogether!

6) If you happen to be driving a “5 Star Rated” vehicle at 32 mph, hit a car head-on exactly like yours and are
wearing your seat belt, according to the ratings you still have a 1 in 10 chance of being killed!

7) Lastly, if you are driving a “1 Star Rated” vehicle (I don’t know of any) and are in the same accident, you still have a 50-50 chance of surviving.

It seems that we have a rating system that sounds good, seems like a good measurement of safety, and should provide us with adequate information regarding the dangers of an accident. But for goodness sake, our rating systems barely work for restaurants and do nothing for the motion picture or record industry. How can we think, even for a moment, that it will save our life?

On one hand, airbags and seat belts have certainly saved people from serious injury. But on the other hand, the truth is we have created a “Star System” offering incredible false security; a means of telling ourselves that we are totally protected should we get into an accident, when in fact we are barely protected at best. The truth is we are not driving around in a “bubble of airbag safety” by any means. Regardless of the safety rating of any vehicle we must drive as if our life depended on it! It does!!

Unibody construction, seat belts, side impact bars in our doors, front, side, knee airbags and curtains, shock absorbing bumpers and crumple zones are all good ideas. But we must be fundamentally aware that none of these safety items will save us if we are driving at normal speeds, and an oncoming vehicle crosses into our lane.

Driving on today’s roads, with speed limits up to 75 mph is a serious and life threatening event. We need to depend on ourselves, not on a rating system.

So the next time you hear about a “5 Star Rated” vehicle, ask yourself “How safe is that?”.

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