2019 Tesla Model 3 / Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

You’ve likely seen the phrases Top Safety Pick (TSP) and Top Safety Pick+ (TSP+) in car ads, as well as our new car rankings and reviews. You may be wondering what they are, who performs the tests, and how different vehicles earn these different designations. 

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards are given to vehicles that perform admirably in crash testing and other evaluations performed by the organization. Top Safety Pick awards were first granted in 2006, while the more stringent Top Safety Pick+ award came out in 2013. DIfferent vehicle sizes are tested in their own separate categories, and these tests have become more rigorous over time. Because the criteria change over time, safety ratings between model years are not always comparable. 

Read on to learn more about the components that go into the awards.

Who Evaluates Vehicle Safety in America?

Two organizations evaluate new cars for crashworthiness and safety systems in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a government agency, while the IIHS is a nonprofit organization formed by the automobile insurance industry. The NHTSA can compel automakers to make changes to their vehicles. Modifications to cars in response to IIHS testing are voluntary, though public relations pressure can force automakers to respond to issues found in this organization’s testing. 

What is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a U.S. government agency tasked with testing and enforcing motor vehicle and highway safety regulations. In addition to crash testing vehicles, they are the agency that oversees vehicle recalls and vehicle efficiency regulations. 

The NHTSA is also charged with conducting the New Car Assessment Program, or NCAP. Vehicles can be compared against vehicles in their weight class, but not outside of their segment, as larger vehicles typically fare better in accidents than smaller ones. Their results appear on the price sticker, also called the Monroney sticker, in the windows of new cars for sale. 

The NHTSA evaluates vehicles using multiple crash tests and one technical evaluation. The tests are comprised of frontal, side barrier, and side poll crashes. They also assess vehicles using a formula that predicts resistance to a rollover. From the tests, three scores – plus an overall score – are derived. The results are reported on a scale of one to five stars, with a five-star score being the highest possible rating.  

What is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and its sister organization, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), are private nonprofit organizations funded by automobile insurance companies and insurance organizations. 

The IIHS has the mission of reducing losses from motor vehicle crashes. They look at reducing not only deaths and injuries, but also property damage. They fulfill this mission by researching and reporting on crashworthiness, crash avoidance, and roadway design.

The HLDI looks at the insurance loss statistics for autos and other vehicles. By gathering data from most insurers, the organization can also assess the effectiveness of crash avoidance and injury prevention devices and technologies.

2019 Audi e-tron / Insurance Institute for HIghway Safety

IIHS tests include side, roof strength, head restraint, moderate overlap front, and small overlap front crash tests for both the driver and passenger sides. The evaluations also test headlight performance and the availability of front crash prevention systems. Following each test, a vehicle earns a mark of Poor, Marginal, Acceptable, or the highest possible rating of Good.

From that battery of tests, the organization can identify vehicles that score well on all of their evaluations. Those vehicles receive either a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ designation, with the TSP+ being the highest award. The IIHS also tests LATCH hardware for the easy installation of child car seats. That evaluation, however, is not included in the TSP and TSP+ criteria. 

Are the Organizations’ Evaluations Different?

The tests performed by the two organizations are both aimed at determining the safest cars in a crash, but they do so with dramatically different test designs. For example, the NHTSA’s rollover test evaluates a vehicle’s resistance to flipping over. The IIHS rollover test, meanwhile, evaluates roof strength, should a rollover actually occur.

In general, if a car performs well on one organization’s tests, it should perform well on the other’s – though that's not always the case. Automakers design their vehicles to meet the testing criteria, and may adjust the structure of their products in ways that perform better on some tests than others. 

In general, carmakers won’t design their cars in such a way that dramatically exceeds the crash test standards. Doing so typically adds weight, which reduces fuel economy, or cost, which lessens their competitiveness in the marketplace. 

What Tests Go Into the 2019 IIHS Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ Awards?

To earn a Top Safety Pick award, a new vehicle must earn ratings of Good in all IIHS crash tests, except for the passenger-side small overlap front test, where a score of Acceptable or Good is required. The vehicle also needs to earn an Advanced or Superior rating for front crash prevention, and a score of Acceptable or Good for its headlight performance. 

Top Safety Pick+ award winners have to ace all of the tests, with scores of Good across the board, including the difficult passenger-side small overlap front test and headlight performance. They also need a front crash prevention rating of Advanced or Superior. 

2019 Hyundai Nexo / Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

In some cases, the IIHS’ top safety awards are only given to specific trim levels of a particular model. These trim levels typically have certain levels of advanced safety technology or headlights that meet performance standards. A vehicle's price has no bearing on its headlight performance, as many cars with the highest tech headlight designs perform poorly in the organization's evaluation.  

The IIHS evaluates vehicles based on the following tests.

Driver’s Side Small Overlap Front

Introduced in 2012, the driver’s side small overlap front crash test simulates the impact of a vehicle hitting a light pole or tree on the front left corner of the car. It is performed at 40 mph with a crash-test dummy in the driver’s seat. The collision strikes 25% of the frontal width of the vehicle. 

Passenger Side Small Overlap Front

Similar to the driver's side small overlap crash test, the passenger-side small overlap test simulates an impact on the front right corner of the vehicle. The IIHS introduced the analysis into their suite of evaluations in 2017. Two dummies are placed in the front seat of the car for this test. 

In both the driver and passenger small overlap tests, sensors in the crash-test dummies tell researchers how likely it is that someone would be injured. Engineers also look at the car's structure to see if the impact caused intrusion into the passenger compartment. By watching the movement of the crash test dummies and the transfer of paint from them to the vehicle, testers can assess the effectiveness of the car's seat belts and airbags. 

Moderate Overlap Front

For the moderate overlap front crash test, the vehicle with a dummy in the driver’s seat is propelled at 40 mph toward a 2-foot tall aluminum barrier. It covers 40% of the vehicle’s front-end, with the vehicle striking the barrier on the driver’s side. 

The test simulates a head-on collision between two vehicles that weigh approximately the same amount. It’s designed to assess the front crumple zones and the effectiveness of a vehicle's passenger compartment safety cage. IIHS studies have shown that a driver of a car that earns a rating of Good on the moderate overlap front crash test is 46% less likely to die than the driver of a vehicle with a mark of Poor. 

2019 Volvo XC40 / Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The IIHS frontal crash tests differ significantly from the NHTSA NCAP frontal test, which entails the vehicle hitting a barrier that covers its full width at 35 mph. 

Side Impact

The IIHS has been testing side impact collisions since 2003. In the evaluation, an SUV-shaped, 3,300-pound moving barrier strikes the side of the vehicle at 31 mph. A female-sized adult crash test dummy is placed in the front seat, and a child-sized dummy is placed in the back seat behind the driver. 

The violent collision tests side impact structures as well as side airbags. The dummies are instrumented to determine the severity of head, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, and femur injuries a person would likely sustain in a side-impact collision. 

Data from the IIHS demonstrates that a driver of a vehicle with a rating of Good has a 70% lower risk of death than one in a car with a grade of Poor. 

Roof Strength

The best rollover crash is one that never happens, and that’s the aim of NHTSA rollover resistance testing. The IIHS, on the other hand, tests the worst-case scenario – an actual rollover – by evaluating the strength of a vehicle’s roof. The stronger the roof, the less likely it will be crushed into the occupant compartment. Stronger roofs also help to prevent passengers from being ejected, as they’re more likely to help maintain the integrity of the vehicle’s glass and doors. 

Testers determine roof strength by pressing an angled plate onto one edge of the roof. After this, they record the amount of pressure that is applied before the roof significantly deforms. By comparing the amount of pressure applied to the vehicle’s weight, they come up with a ratio that decides the vehicle’s score. 

Head Restraint Tests

The IIHS’ two-part head restraint evaluation is intended to rate vehicles based on their effectiveness in preventing whiplash injuries. A static assessment looks at the geometry of the headrest in relation to where a human's head would be. 

2019 BMW X5 / Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

The dynamic test consists of a crash test dummy placed in a car seat, which is then moved on a sled to simulate a rear-end collision. Sensors capture data about the force applied to the neck and torso of the dummy, as well as the time it takes for the head to contact the restraint. A seat with a short duration to impact the restraint and low neck force will get a high rating. 

Front Crash Prevention Systems

The easiest crash to avoid is the one that never happens. That's the goal of accident prevention technologies such as forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking. While they might not prevent all collisions, they can reduce the severity of the impact in many cases. 

IIHS testing takes a look at how well standard or available systems perform at both 12 and 25 mph. Points are scored by vehicles that either stop or significantly slow before the impact. A car that’s only equipped with forward collision warning automatically gets a rating of Basic. The best performing vehicles earn a grade of Superior. Those in the middle are rated Advanced.

IIHS testing does not evaluate pedestrian detection, blind spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, or lane-keeping assist systems.

Headlight Rating

One of the newest in the IIHS slate of tests is an evaluation of headlight performance. Headlights have become rather advanced, with LED, high-intensity discharge (HID), and curve-adaptive lights (lights that move in the direction you're turning) available on many vehicles. Despite these advances in technology, they have not necessarily become more effective than older halogen headlights.

The IIHS tests look at how both low- and high-beam headlights perform in a straight line and on curves. They also evaluate how much glare the lights create in the eyes of oncoming drivers. Their measurements are compared with what they consider to be ideal headlight illumination. Extra credit is given to vehicles with automatic high-beam headlights that activate when the road ahead is clear of other cars. 

To get a Top Safety Pick, a car must have an Acceptable or Good headlight score. A Top Safety Pick+ requires a rating of Good. In some cases, certain trim levels of the same model will qualify because they have specific headlights, while others with different lights will not. 

2019 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ Award Winners

2019 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ Award recipient, the 2019 Hyundai Kona/ Hyundai Motor America

The following vehicles have earned a 2019 IIHS Top Safety Pick+ Award. The IIHS uses different size categories than our new car rankings and reviews for their comparative tests. We’ve listed these  vehicles in alphabetical order in each of their respective size categories.

Small Cars

2019 Honda Insight

2020 Honda Insight

2019 Hyundai Elantra sedan (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights, built after September 2018)

2019 Kia Forte sedan (with specific headlights)

2019 Kia Niro (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2020 Kia Soul (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid

2019 Subaru Crosstrek (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 Subaru Impreza (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 Subaru WRX (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

Midsize Cars

2019 Hyundai Sonata (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 Kia Optima (with specific headlights)

2019 Mazda6 (with specific headlights, built after June 2019)

2019 Subaru Legacy (with specific headlights)

2019 Subaru Outback (with specific headlights)

2019 Toyota Camry (with specific headlights)

Midsize Luxury Cars

2019 BMW 3 Series sedan (with specific headlights)

2019 Lexus ES 350 (with specific headlights)

2019 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan (with specific headlights)

2019 Tesla Model 3

Large Cars

2019 Kia Stinger (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 Toyota Avalon (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights, built after September 2018)

Large Luxury Cars

2019 Audi A6 (with specific headlights)

2019 BMW 5 Series (with specific headlights)

2019 Genesis G70 (with specific headlights)

2019 Genesis G80 (with specific headlights)

2019 Genesis G90 (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 Lincoln Continental (with specific headlights)

2019 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan (with specific headlights)

Small SUVs

2019 Audi Q3 (with specific headlights)

2019 Hyundai Kona

2019 Hyundai Tucson (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights, built after March 2019)

2019 Mazda CX-5 (with specific headlights)

2019 Subaru Forester (with specific headlights, built after January 2019)

2019 Toyota RAV4 (with specific headlights)

2019 Volvo XC40 (with specific headlights)

Midsize SUVs

2020 Hyundai Palisade (with specific headlights)

2019 Hyundai Santa Fe (with specific headlights)

2019 Kia Sorento (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 Mazda CX-9 (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights, built after June 2019)

2019 Subaru Ascent (with specific headlights)

2020 Subaru Ascent (with specific headlights)

Midsize Luxury SUVs

2019 Acura RDX (with specific headlights)

2020 Acura RDX (with specific headlights)

2019 BMW X3 (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

2019 BMW X5 (with specific headlights)

2019 Hyundai Nexo (built after June 2019)

2019 Lexus NX (built after January 2019)

2019 Mercedes-Benz GLC (with specific headlights)

2019 Mercedes-Benz GLE (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights)

Large SUVs

2019 Audi e-tron

Large Pickups

2019 Ram 1500 (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights, built after May 2019)

2020 Ram 1500 (with optional front crash protection and specific headlights, built after May 2019)

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