Tesla safety rating perhaps not all it's cracked up to be

Tesla Motors last week touted its 5-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—going so far as to say that although the NHTSA doesn’t publish star ratings above 5, the underlying test data suggest a combined rating of 5.4 stars.

However, some believe Tesla's claim not all it's cracked up to be. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The federal government doesn't test most other luxury cars. So the Model S may be safer than many cars costing far less. But whether it's safer than direct competitors from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz—considered among the safest cars available—remains a mystery.” NHTSA tests about 85% of new models and focuses on lower cost, higher volume vehicles.

Further, the Times quotes Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, as saying, “Safety in the tests is different than safety on the road.” Crash tests don’t take into account ways in which a collision might have been avoided or its impact minimized in the first place—because of the collision avoidance sensors and automatic breaking braking features of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicle, for example.

Tesla responded to the Times that it believes such features have a marginal impact on overall safety, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that forward collision systems with automatic braking have cut property damage claims by 14% on some models, and they cut bodily injury claims, made when the insured hurts someone in another vehicle, by up to 16%.

These cars are all undoubtedly and comparably safe, a few tenths of a star here and there not withstanding. It's odd that Tesla would choose to quibble and bring attention that, for whatever reason, it is not now offering active safety functions.

Here s what the NHTSA had to say on its home page this morning (accompanied by a photo of a Tesla S after a crash test):

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to improving safety on the nation’s roadways and helping motorists make informed decisions about new or used vehicles they are considering purchasing. The agency’s 5-Star Safety Ratings program is designed to provide consumers with information about the crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by Federal standards. One star is the lowest rating; five stars is the highest. More stars equal safer cars. NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star rating categories. In addition, the agency has guidelines in place for manufacturers and advertising agencies to follow to ensure that accurate and consistent information is conveyed to the public.”

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