How NHTSA Ratings Work

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

It's a little-heard-of government agency, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a key part of car buying. Before a car can be sold in the United States, it has to undergo NHTSA testing. Good NHTSA ratings can lead to the automaker selling cars -- in fact, many more cars than a poorly-rated model sells. When a model gets good safety ratings, you'll hear about it in print, radio and television ads, and at the dealership, too. When it comes to buying cars, highly-rated models tend to be more popular with consumers, making the NHTSA and integral part of both car buying and selling.

So, what exactly is the NHTSA? The NHTSA was established in 1970. Its mission is to "save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, though education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity." The NHTSA's task is crucial: Automotive crashes are the leading cause of death across all age groups for Americans and take an estimated $230 billion from the economy each year [source: NHTSA].

While NHTSA has a number of programs to educate drivers and communities about road safety, the agency is best known for safety recalls and vehicle product testing. In both cases, the NHTSA tests and recalls not only cars, but other products used with cars, like child safety seats.

If you think about it, it's easy to see how important the work the NHTSA does actually is for consumers. Without the NHTSA, there wouldn't be a system to track safety issues with cars and force car makers to recall (and fix) unsafe models. Also, parents would have no way of knowing if the car seats they put their kids in will truly keep them safe. Without NHTSA-developed safety standards, car makers could put unsafe cars on the road, too. And finally, without NHTSA ratings, car buyers wouldn't know if the car they're buying is actually safe.