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Tyson also quashed the common misconception about smaller cars being unsafe. "While there are some safer small cars in the market, the consumer needs to understand there are vehicles that are safer than others in every size range. If you have your heart set on a smaller vehicle, find one that scores the best.

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Safest Cars

Safest Cars on the Road: The Truth Behind Five-Star Ratings By Jon Alain Guzik, Editor-in-Chief

While options, good looks and the right price are all very important factors in choosing a new car, safety is paramount for many buyers.

Turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, or check the banner ads on your favorite website and you'll see auto company after auto company boasting of its new vehicle's "five-star crash test rating."

But what exactly does a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) represent? And how should that affect your new car purchase?

"NHTSA is part of the federal government, and our funding is allocated by Congress," explains NHTSA spokesperson Rae Tyson. NHTSA has been testing front-side impact since 1978 for the 1979 model year, and side impact since 1996 for the 1997 model year. In 2001, it introduced the rollover test. All of these crash test ratings are on a five-star scale.

"NHTSA buys all of the test vehicles randomly without the manufactures knowing who we are," says Tyson. "That way we get a good sample of everyday vehicles."

The administration tests the vehicles in the three different ways. It awards a maximum of five stars in each category, with the frontal rating based on the risk of head and chest injury, the side rating based on chest injury, and the rollover test gauging a vehicle's stability.

"Rollover is critical for a category that is very rollover prone, like an SUV, pick-up, or van," continues Tyson. "We do rollover testing for everything, including passenger vehicles. Rollover is not just a problem restricted to light trucks alone."

Tyson advises potential buyers to look at the numbers published on safercar.gov (NHTSA's consumer website) to find out how well a vehicle fares.

Have the ratings improved since testing began almost 30 years ago? "There really isn't any question about it," explains Tyson. "Most of the vehicles we are testing are getting such good crash test scores that we are working on a top-to-bottom review to figure out ways to make the testing much tougher."

Tyson says there are a few features that deserve close consumer attention, including electronic stability control, especially on SUVs and pick-ups. Anti-lock brakes and some sort of side impact protection, like side curtain airbags, are also important. "While side airbags are not a government requirement," he says, "they are an option well worth having." When it comes to SUVs, it's especially important to look at rollover ratings as well.

Tyson also quashed the common misconception about smaller cars being unsafe. "While there are some safer small cars in the market, the consumer needs to understand there are vehicles that are safer than others in every size range. If you have your heart set on a smaller vehicle, find one that scores the best.

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