There’s a comfort in knowing that if, heaven forbid, you and your family members are involved in a collision, the car-buying decision you made will keep you all safe. Thankfully, we don’t need to rely on anecdotes from friends or marketing from automakers to have an idea of how safe cars will be in an accident. That’s where IIHS safety testing comes in.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was founded by auto insurance associations back in 1959—incidentally, the same year Volvo introduced the three-point safety belt. Since then, the IIHS has continued its work to reduce the frequency of collisions and to minimize the rate and severity of injuries (and monetary damage) in the crashes that cannot be prevented. Our government establishes crash safety standards and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests vehicles, but the nature of fedearl bureaucracy means that these tests are slow to evolve. Being intimately involved in the repair or replacement of most vehicles involved in traffic accidents puts the IIHS member groups in a strong position to propose new tests.. A list of the IIHS’ member groups can be found here. Current testing procedures include no fewer than six crashworthiness tests, two front crash prevention tests, headlight testing, and ease-of-use evaluations for child seat installation.

The IIHS tests many new passenger cars every year, the best of which earn its coveted Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards. Exactly how safe does a car need to be to ace the IIHS’ safety testing? Keep reading.

IIHS 2020 Top Safety Pick And 2020 Top Safety Pick+ Criteria
Only vehicles that perform well in crashworthiness, front crash prevention, and headlight testing earn a Top Safety Pick award from the IIHS. To be named an IIHS 2020 Top Safety Pick, a vehicle must receive Good ratings in all six crashworthiness evaluations, Advanced or Superior ratings for available vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian front crash prevention, and Acceptable or Good ratings for the headlights. Those chasing 2020 Top Safety Pick+ designation must pass the same requirements, but Acceptable or Good headlights must be equipped as standard.

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*Disclaimer
The IIHS’ standards often change, so for example, a 2020 Top Safety Pick has different standards than a 2019 Top Safety Pick.

More on safe cars: Read about the safest sedans for 2020 here.

IIHS Crashworthiness Testing

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The battery of IIHS safety tests includes no fewer than six crashworthiness evaluations: moderate overlap front, driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints & seats. For each evaluation, vehicles receive Poor, Marginal, Acceptable, or Good ratings.

The front crash tests involve a vehicle travelling toward a rigid barrier at 40 mph with test dummies sized to represent a 50th percentile male body. Side tests are conducted with a 3,300-pound SUV-shaped barrier colliding with the driver’s side of the vehicle at 31 mph. Based on data that suggests women are more likely than men to suffer head injuries in side impacts, two dummies meant to replicate a petite women and a 12-year-old child are positioned in the driver’s seat and driver’s-side rear seat.