How safe is your car, truck or SUV? Insurance group probably has the answer

Safety first.

Well, not always when it comes to buying a new car.

While the safety of your next vehicle is among the most important factors you’ll likely consider, it may fall behind quality, fuel economy and, in some cases, cost of ownership.

But big improvements over the years have meant shoppers may not need to think about it as much, because the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) thinks about safety a lot.

The organization recently named its 2015 list of the safest vehicles, based on comprehensive crash tests it has conducted for a decade, and 76 made the grade as IIHS Top Safety Picks in 10 vehicle categories, 34 as Top Safety Pick+ award winners and the remainder as second-rank Top Safety Picks.

The brands with the most vehicles and the number of models on the full list are Honda (8), Subaru and Toyota (7 each), Chevrolet (5) and Kia, Nissan, Volkswagen and Volvo (4 each). Combining related manufacturers, Honda/Acura scores 11, Toyota/Lexus gets 10 and Hyundai/Kia 7. Overall, 25 brands were represented on the list with the remainder ranging from one to three models.

Photo: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Photo: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

While the organization tests new cars, its website still presents winners going back to 2006, meaning used-car shoppers also can benefit from the crash ratings, assuming vehicles have been maintained.

IIHS tests evaluate two aspects of safety: crashworthiness, or how well a vehicle protects its occupants in a crash, and crash avoidance and mitigation, technology that can prevent a crash or lessen its severity. And the tests are only getting tougher, according to a spokesman for the IIHS.

“IIHS awards its top safety designations to vehicles that meet our test criteria,” said Russ Rader, senior VP of communications. “The criteria have changed over time as we’ve changed or added requirements. The idea is to make the requirements more challenging so that vehicles get safer. For 2015, we tightened the requirements for vehicles to earn the top designation of Top Safety Pick+.”

Those tightening standards show in the numbers of IIHS picks over the past several years.

For example, 61 vehicles were named Top Safety Picks in 2010 (the + designation wasn’t added until 2013), rising to 103 in 2011, 136 in 2012 and 158 in 2013, with 30 named TSP+ winners in that year. Tighter standards reduced the list to 69 vehicles in 2014, according to IIHS data. The testing organization identified only 18 vehicles as TSP’s in 2006 and 23 in 2007.

“The good news for consumers is that even as tests have become more challenging, the automakers are responding quickly, and so more vehicles qualify for the awards,” Rader said.

The IIHS maintains ratings on about 180 models, Rader said.