The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA – “nit-suh”) is an agency of the United States Department of Transportation. The NHTSA conducts safety tests on all types of vehicles and has been charged with the task now for decades. The agency is responsible for the development of the 5-Star Safety Rating System used today to determine how well occupants will be protected in an accident. They pioneered rollover resistance testing and designed new testing dummies to represent a broader variety of occupants. The agency also tests and assesses the new, advanced Crash Avoidance Technology now becoming the standard in most new cars. The NHTSA recently published a safety guide booklet to help consumers make smart, safety-based decisions when it comes to purchasing an automobile titled “Purchasing With Safety In Mind.”

1978 – NHTSA began testing frontend collisions and researching possible safety measures to avoid and/or withstand such impacts.

1979 – New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) formed to encourage manufacturers to built safer cars and American consumers to buy them.

1993 – First version of the 5-Star Safety Rating System is implemented to assign scores to similar vehicles based on the amount of safety provided to the occupants.

1996 – Began testing and analyzing side-impact collisions.

2000 – NHTSA first starts testing and scoring vehicles for rollover resistance.

2003 – Rollover Resistance Testing updated to include “untripped” rollovers (ex: driver wakes up behind wheel after falling asleep while driving and jerks the steering wheel, causing a rollover – responsible for 1/3 of all rollovers).

2004 – Established

2006 – Require manufacturers to place a “Monroney” sticker on the window of all vehicles being manufactured for sale, providing safety rating information.

2008 – NHTSA designs new tests to provide more accurate safety readings for the 5-Star Safety Rating System, designs new test dummies, creates more stringent criteria, reviews various Advanced Crash Avoidance Technologies and provides consumers with information on their options, etc.

2010 – Implements newest changes to NCAP for 2011 model year vehicles and those later to come.

NHTSA has recently begun to crack down on auto manufacturers due to violations and safety hazards arising in recent past, resulting in major recalls from multiple manufacturers. Under the new guidelines, the NHTSA will be doing more rigorous tests, which will provide better comprehensive crash data, allowing for tougher, more accurate ratings to be made.

Also, new crash test dummies have been designed to provide more accurate readings and represent a wider variety of occupants of varying height and weight. These newly modeled dummies also provide feedback information on the severity of injuries sustained in each test, with focuses on the cranium, neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis and legs.

The new 5-Star Safety Rating System now combines the safety ratings of each individual test to provide an overall safety rating for the vehicle. The score itself is a combination of the results from the frontal test, the side barrier & pole test, the rollover resistance test, and the projected average relative safety of the fleet. This new score shows how a vehicle compares to the projected average Overall Vehicle Score of other passenger vehicles with similar size & weight – no more than 250lbs difference.

The agency is also widening their efforts in educating consumers to focus on safety. Dealerships are required to have the 5-Star Rating Label (“Monroney” sticker) displayed in the window, providing consumers with crash testing results based on more strict testing & ratings. The NHTSA’s goal is to help consumers make smarter, SAFER decisions when in the market for a vehicle.

Frontal Test: two vehicles going head-on in a collision

Side Barrier Test: two car crash focusing on another vehicle colliding perpendicular into the driver’s side of the vehicle being tested.

Side Pole Test: Simulates a car drifting sideways causing the drivers side to collide with a pole, as one might turning on an icy or oil-slicked road.

Rollover Test: Sharp curve at high speed (55mph) simulating highway or freeway conditions to test a vehicle’s resistance to rollovers.


Electronic Stability Control (ESC):
– computer technology designed to improve vehicle’s safety
– detects skids & adjusts brakes to each tire individually to keep vehicle stable
– compares driver’s intended direction to vehicles actual direction
– activates in emergency evasive swerves, poorly judged turns, slippery roads and hydroplaning
– CANNOT regain control at too great/high of speeds

Forward Collision Warning (FCW):
– aka: “Pre-Crash System”
– uses radar ( and sometimes laser sensors) to detect objects in front of vehicle
-alerts driver when vehicle is getting too close to an object or another vehicle ahead of it
-different manufacturers offer different forms of this warning system

Lane Departure Warning (LDW):
– senses and monitors lanes while vehicle is driving
-alerts driver when vehicle starts to veer out of its intended lane or drift off the road