Do Car Safety Ratings Affect the Cost of Your Car Insurance?

By Desiree Baughman
Desiree maintains insurance licensure in 46 states, and by combining years of experience as a writer and insurance professional, she delivers information consumers can easily relate to and understand. A graduate of Sweet Briar College with a diverse writing portfolio, she regularly serves as an expert source and commentator for respected outlets like CBS Money, Bankrate, and Ragan.com.

Do Car Safety Ratings Affect the Cost of Your Car Insurance?Many factors determine how much your car insurance will cost, and you may not have control over every single one. There are some ways to combat high monthly premiums though, and driving a safe vehicle is one of them. It makes sense for auto insurance companies to reward safe vehicles. For the past few years, there’s been an average of 30K auto accident related deaths annually on American roadways. Even though that ever-changing number has been declining over the years, it pays to reward drivers for making safer investments.

Of course, not everyone has the means to buy the newest vehicle on the market. However, by understanding the safety tests your car was put and the rating it was given, you can be a more attentive driver and consumer when buying a car. Safe driving is the number one way to keep your car insurance premiums lower, whether it has the newest safety gadgets or not, but that’s not to say insurers don’t care about safety tests scores.

The History of Car Safety

Since the first cars were being developed in the late 19th century, manufacturers have endlessly worked on improving safety features. It’s hard to imagine that the first cars came without headlights, windshield wipers, and seat belts, but in those times, not having to use a horse and buggy was at the top of everyone’s priority list. As cars became more popular though, such safety features began to evolve out of necessity.

The first recorded car accident involving a gasoline-powered vehicle is claimed by Ohio City, Ohio when engineer James Lambert’s car hit a tree root, causing him to swerve. Lambert and his passenger sustained only minor injuries, but as we know, accidents today are much more serious.

Some safety developments came into being simply as a measure of necessity. Take the windshield wiper, for example. Can you imagine having to hang out the window of your car when it was raining just to see? That was precisely what Mary Anderson saw when visiting New York City. To combat this issue, Anderson invented the windshield wiper, which became a standard feature on most vehicles by 1916.

Laminated glass, the first type of shatter resistant shield for cars, wasn’t implemented in vehicles until the 1920’s, and surprisingly, universal safety standards weren’t applied to vehicle production until the 1970’s. For many years, aesthetics drove the car industry, but as deaths increased, producers and consumers alike began to recognize the need for increased safety measures. The 1950’s brought wrap-around windshields, padded dashboards, and the beginning of the seat belt.

It also spawned the rise of Ralph Nader, one smart safety crusader and a forefather of the insurance premiums you pay today. Nadar forever changed the way American vehicles were produced when he published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, which accused the auto industry of sacrificing safety in the name of style.

Nader’s next initiative was testifying before Congress about car safety. According to historians, “…his efforts aided the passage of the 1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, a piece of legislation aimed at reducing the rising number of injuries and deaths from road accidents by establishing federal safety standards for every American-made vehicle, including safety belts for all passengers.”

Even before Nader’s report, things like air bags, anti-lock brakes and seat belts had been invented, but weren’t necessarily being implemented as they should have been. One of the main reasons could have been lack of reliable safety testing and data. While accidents and their causes were logged, preventive safety measures weren’t a common practice. With the invention of the first crash-test dummy, “Sierra Sam,” and the ability to test how the human body withstood a vehicle’s impact, it became harder for the auto industry to ignore safety short comings.

General Motors (GM) was the first automaker to perform a crash test in 1934, but it wasn’t until 1979 that popular cars were uniformly tested and that the results were shared publicly. With the creation of the National Transportation Safety Board (thanks again to Nadar), now known as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), several tests were developed to see just how safe vehicles really are.

Put to the Test

The NHTSA continues to conduct tests and release safety awards and reports, but since 1995, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been conducting the majority of safety tests.

Insurers depend heavily upon the findings of the IIHS safety tests, which focus on two areas:

  • Crashworthiness, which rates how well a car protects passengers inside during a collision.
  • Crash avoidance and mitigation, based on what technology a car comes with to avoid accidents, and how the technology reduces severity of impacts when they do occur.

Next, the IIHS performs smaller tests that help it grade a vehicle’s overall safety rate:

  • Frontal Crash Tests: Since these types of crashes result in the most fatalities, testing a car’s ability to withstand an impact of this type is crucial. In a moderate overlap test, a car traveling at 40 mph hits a 2 foot barrier head on. In a small overlap test, the front corner of the car hits a 5 foot barrier. Engineers look at structural performance, injury measures, and dummy movement to rate a vehicle.
  • Side Crash Tests: Starting in 2003, this test slams a barrier the size of a SUV into a vehicle with dummies equal to the size of a woman and a small child.
  • Roof Strength Tests: Rollovers can kill car occupants, so this test is conducted to see at which strength to weight ratio the roof caves in. The higher the rating, the better the score.
  • Head restraints and seat belt tests: Whiplash is a common byproduct of a car accident. Head restraints should be close to the back of the head, and about 3.5 inches below the top of the head.
  • Electronic stability control tests (ESC): ESC systems are one of the newest improvements the auto industry has seen where safety is concerned. These can help prevent accidents entirely by basically “reading” your car’s actions and reacting in your place. For example, say you were driving in the snow and started to lose control: A car with an ESC system, relying on sensors, may apply brakes at just the right speed on specific wheels and slow your speed. You may not see a huge sticker on your new car advertising its ESC tests score, but your new car’s VIN number tells insurers if it performed well and they give such cars a gold star.

Why Do Insurers Care About Safety Test Scores?

While being a safe driver has a huge impact on your insurance premiums, and although insurers certainly care about that factor, they definitely look at safety tests scores.

For most other insurance premium factors, there’s history to look at. One reason they care about the scores is because of history – or lack thereof, when it comes to the newest vehicles. Insurers have years of data to sort through for most questions. For example, do people that live in larger cities have more accidents? What age group files the most claims? What’s the average claim amount for someone who lives in Nebraska? For every question, there’s usually a great deal of specific information to spot trends within, but when it comes to new cars and how they perform in crashes, there’s a big hole. Therefore, insurers only have safety test scores to go upon when rating the safety of the newest vehicles. Even the same manufacturer can produce two models that perform drastically different. For example, even in the exact same year, Honda saw its Civic win Top Safety Pick while its Accord performed poorly.

Additionally, safety tests results can be surprising and therefore help insurers avoid judging a book for its cover. For example, the Porsche 911 boasts a 67 percent less chance for bodily injury claims than the average vehicle, whereas the Mitsubishi Lancer has almost double the bodily injury claims as the norm.

An average of 5.4 million car accidents occur each year, and anything that helps prevent an accident is seen as a positive thing by the auto insurance industry. Not only do safe cars keep drivers safe even during accidents, they keep claim costs low. The more money insurance companies have to pay in claims, the higher your premiums will be.

Thus, if you’re in the market for a new car, choose carefully. While insurance companies launch their own investigations into a car’s safety, they also rely on data from respected agencies like the IIHS and NHTSA. In the crash tests, models that perform the best are given awards, and are highly regarded by insurance companies, so you can bet that if you buy a car with one of these rewards, you’ll be rewarded in turn. Companies performing these tests are looking at important features like the make of the car, airbag deployment, and brake assist.

Additionally, statistics show that responsible drivers are usually the ones who invest in safe cars. In addition to crash tests, insurers also look at additional safety features that could lead to potential discounts. Some significant safety features insurers also look for in vehicles include:

  • Daytime running lights
  • Air bags
  • Anti-theft systems
  • Anti-lock brakes
  • Night vision (available on new models)
  • Electronic stability control
  • Built-in car seats

If you want to know the safety rating of your current car, or are considering a new vehicle, check out the annual IIHS Top Safety Picks or the NHTSA’s ratings on SaferCar.gov. Kelley Blue Book also provides an in-depth analysis on a vehicle’s latest crash test results, safety features, and performance features that work together for accident- prevention.

It’s only logical that insurers consider car safety ratings when calculating premiums, and the correlations seem obvious. If you drive a safe car, you’re less likely to be a risky driver; it tells insurers you’re no dummy and that you’re being a cautious, responsible driver. If you’re in an accident, better safety ratings translate to you being better protected, which means your insurer will likely have to pay out less towards medical expenses, which they also like. It may seem like money is their motivation, but next to safety, it’s likely one of yours too. The safer your car is, the lower your premiums, and it’s safe to say that saving money can almost feel just as good as knowing you’re behind the wheel of a car that protects your safety and that of any precious cargo you’re transporting.