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IIHS Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+: What Do They Actually Mean?

You see it all the time. A car has been recognized as an IIHS Top Safety Pick or maybe even a Top Safety Pick+. But what do those safety-centric designations actually mean? And who is the IIHS? Let’s find out.

A Nissan Versa being crash tested by the IIHS
A 2016 Nissan Motor Co. Versa, left, is test crashed at the IIHS. | Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What does IIHS stand for?

IIHS stands for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IIHS is an independent, nonprofit research organization and is dedicated to reducing the number of deaths and injuries resulting from motor vehicle crashes. According to U.S. News & World Report, various automobile insurance companies and insurance organizations fund the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Three major insurance associations that, at the time, represented 80% of the U.S. auto insurance market founded the IIHS in 1959. The IIHS initially focused on supporting highway safety efforts. After several years, however, its focus shifted to crash prevention and research.

In 1992, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety opened the Vehicle Research Center, where it performs several different crash tests. The organization rates cars for safety based on how they perform in these crash tests. The Top Safety Pick+ and Top Safety Pick designation goes to the safest cars.

IIHS safety ratings, not including the Top Safety Pick designation, displayed on a wall at IIHS headquarters.
IIHS safety ratings displayed on a wall at IIHS headquarters. | Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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What is required for a car to be a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+?

According to the IIHS website, there are specific criteria cars must meet to earn the Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ designation. To be recognized as a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+, the organization requires cars to earn ‘Good’ ratings in each of its crash tests. They must also earn ‘Advanced’ or ‘Superior’ ratings for available front crash prevention.

The difference between the Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ designation really comes down to headlights. According to the IIHS, to earn its top safety rating, cars must have ‘Acceptable’ or ‘Good’ headlights as standard. According to U.S. News & World Report, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety updated this criterion in 2020.

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The IIHS’s crash tests for the 2021 Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ awards

The IIHS puts vehicles through several different crash tests. It designed each of these tests to evaluate a vehicle’s crashworthiness. To date, the organization utilizes six different crash tests: moderate overlap front, driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraints and seats.

In addition to its six crashworthiness tests, the IIHS also puts vehicles through several crash avoidance and mitigation tests. These include its front crash prevention tests and its headlight evaluations. It tests all vehicles for LATCH ease of use too, a rating that’s particularly valuable to parents, guardians, and caregivers.

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Should you buy an IIHS Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+?

If you want to buy a safe car, you really can’t go wrong choosing an IIHS Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+. Fortunately, several vehicles have been able to secure such a designation. Among them are cars like the Subaru Crosstrek, Honda Accord, Toyota Highlander, and even the Ram 1500.