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How five-star vehicle safety ratings are computed

As one of the preeminent federal agencies dealing with the consequences of automobile crashes across the country, including New Jersey, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration long ago established a system to help consumers identify the safest vehicles to buy and drive. NHTSA's New Car Assessment Program, which is more commonly called the five-star program, began in 1978. Five-star provides consumers with information about new vehicles' crash protection, rollover safety and other features. One star means a vehicle has received the lowest rating and five stars the highest.

Five-star was amended in 1997 and 2001 to emphasize higher safety standards. The safety ratings cover all new car models for sale in the United States. The ratings must be posted on the windows of all new cars. Like some other safety-testing organizations, NHTSA rates how resistant vehicles are to rollover crashes and front and side impacts. NHTSA also identifies vehicles that are equipped with newer and more advanced crash-resistance technologies such as electronic stability control and lane departure warning.

Contrary to popular belief that manufacturers supply the vehicles used for testing, NHTSA purchases them from dealerships across the country. It tests both newly launched vehicles as well as redesigned ones to ensure that defective products do not enter the market and cause injury or death.

The tests are performed under stringent conditions that put dummies in drivers' and passengers' seats for a series of test crashes. Instruments measure the force of impact on different parts of the dummies. The resulting data helps testers assess the likely injuries that would be caused to real humans-their heads, spines, chests, abdomens, and pelvises-and thus how safe vehicles really are. NHTSA performs frontal barrier crash testing, side barrier crash testing, and side pole crash testing before awarding any safety rating to a vehicle.

Source:, "5-Star Safety Ratings Overview," Accessed on Mar. 17, 2015

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