Every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducts crash tests on new vehicles and rates their performance in its 5-Star Safety Rating program. Five stars indicate the highest safety rating and one star the lowest. You can find the NHTSA safety ratings online and on new-car window stickers.

The NHTSA conducts tests for crashworthiness, including frontal, side barrier, side pole and rollover evaluations. The NHTSA also notes when a vehicle has one or more of the following crash avoidance technologies that it recommends and which meet the agency's performance standards:

  • Forward collision warning
  • Lane departure warning
  • Dynamic brake support (also known as brake assist, which supplements the driver's braking to avoid a crash)
  • Crash imminent braking (also known as automatic emergency braking, which, if the driver takes no action to avoid the crash, automatically applies the vehicle's brakes to slow or stop the car)

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a private nonprofit organization funded by automobile insurance companies and insurance associations, also tests and rates vehicles.

The IIHS conducts tests for crashworthiness, including driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, and side tests. Its tests also assess roof strength and the adequacy of head restraints. Also, the IIHS tests crash avoidance and crash mitigation technology. When a model has front crash mitigation systems available, the IIHS rates them as basic, advanced or superior, based on the system type and performance in its track tests. The organization also tests and rates headlights. The best-performing cars earn the organization's Top Safety Pick+ or Top Safety Pick awards.

Neither organization tests all cars on the market, but they do test the ones people buy most. For example, the NHTSA is crash-testing 43 vehicles from the 2019 model year. It's also conducting verification testing of the advanced crash avoidance technology systems in 41 vehicles.

Edmunds vehicle pages include both the NHTSA and the IIHS safety ratings. Enter the make, model and year of the vehicle you want ("2019 Chevrolet Colorado Crew Cab," for example), and scroll to the "Safety" section. In addition to the safety ratings, you'll find notes on the safety features that most impressed the Edmunds expert reviewers.

The Other Must-Have Safety Feature

A vehicle with top safety scores will help you ensure you and your family are safe while you're driving. But the most significant factor in automobile safety is still the driver.

A driver's action, or inaction, is the critical reason for an accident in 94 percent of crashes, according to a NHTSA study. If you drive while distracted, you're increasing your chances of an accident. Speed and alcohol also kill: Twenty-seven percent of the 2016 traffic fatalities occurred in accidents where at least one driver was speeding; 28 percent of motor vehicle fatalities that year involved alcohol-impaired driving.

Your car — no matter how crashworthy or loaded up with safety technology — may not be able to compensate for human error. The winning combination is to pick a safe car and be a safe driver.