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Confused about crash-test ratings? Here's help

If you’ve been checking out car ads, you might have noticed a battle over bragging rights for the best crash protection, or how well a vehicle protects the people inside from injury during a collision.The competition is particularly heated in the minivan segment. The Ford Windstar and Honda Odyssey, for example, are billed as having a perfectscore.Toyota ads, meanwhile, have boasted that the Sienna “did better in insurance institute crash tests than any other vehicle ever.” All the competing claims can make the average car shopper feel like acrash-test dummy. The confusion stems from the fact that there are two sets of widely touted ratings issued by two different organizations based on dissimilar tests. If you’re baffled by all the boasting, maybe it’s time for a crashcourse in collision-rating criteria.

Any new vehicle sold in this country must meet minimum government-mandated “crash worthiness” standards – including a standard for protecting the driver and passengers during a 48-kilometres-per-hour (30-miles-per-hour) frontal crash into a concrete wall. Forces on the head, chest and legs of crash-test dummies are measured and must meet safety parameters. “As far as we’re concerned, all the vehicles that are available for sale are crash worthy because they meet our standards,” notes Brian Jonah of Transport Canada.

The complications start when you look at testing conducted south of the border. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a basic standard similar to Canada’s. But the NHTSA also tests a select number of vehicles in frontal collisions at 35 m.p.h. (56 km/h) and uses a five-star rating system for the results. “We know all the vehicles will pass” at the minimum standard (30 m.p.h./48 km/h), says NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd. “They’re tested at a higher speed to draw attention to the differences between them.” When a vehicle gets a five-star rating, it means a belted occupant has a 10 per cent or less chance of sustaining a serious head, chest or leg injury. By contrast, in a vehicle with a one-star rating, the odds are 46 per cent or greater. NHTSA also conducts a side-collision test, to mimic a T-bone crash into a standing vehicle. Again, five-star ratings are issued based on the chance that a person inside will sustain a life-threatening chest injury. Both the Windstar and Odyssey received NHTSA’s highest five-star rating in both front and side crashes. For budget reasons NHTSA doesn’t test all vehicles. In the past, it has tested about 30 to 40 vehicles each year, although in 2001 it will increase the number to more than 100. “We try to make our money go as far as we can, so we pick popular cars and interesting new cars,” notes Hurd. “It covers a large percentage of the vehicles being sold.”

A different set of widely publicized tests is also carried out several times each year by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit research organization funded by auto insurers. Here, the crash barrier extends only partway across the front of the vehicle. “Many experts believe this is more representative of a real-world head-on collision,” says Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports magazine. “It puts more stress on the vehicle and is more demanding of its structure.” The Toyota Sienna edged out the Windstar and Odyssey in IIHS tests to garner “best pick” honours in the minivan class. Shenhar recommends consumers look at as many tests as possible (see Number crunching, below). “It will give you a real picture of the crash worthiness of that car,” notes Shenhar. Since not all vehicles are tested, you may not get results for your dream car. But crash worthiness is an important factor for most car buyers, so it might be worth putting dreams aside for the sake of safety.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.