Crash tests are very important to many people who are interested in buying a car. After all, they help to demonstrate just how safe -- or unsafe -- a car can be. But do crash tests really translate to real-world safety? We examine the issue to find out.

How Are Crash Tests Conducted?

Before we explain the real-world application of crash tests, it's important to discuss how they're carried out. While most people think crash tests involve slamming a vehicle into a flat wall at a certain speed, the tests have actually become a lot more sophisticated over the years.

In the U.S., two major groups carry out crash safety assessments. There's the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal government agency, and a nonprofit group called the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), which is funded by insurance companies. Between the two groups, each car is tested a whopping nine different ways. Of course, they don't test every single car made, but many popular models are tested each year.

NHTSA tests involve one front impact and two side crashes, along with a math-based rollover rating to assess a car's likelihood of tipping over. IIHS tests are a little more in-depth, measuring attributes from roof strength to how a car and its passengers will survive an impact with a pole at a specific angle. In the end, IIHS conducts four tests on each vehicle, plus another one on the head restraints to examine whiplash in a collision from behind.

Are Crash-Test Results Useful?

Now that you have a better idea of how crash tests are carried out, you might be thinking that the tests are more valuable than you initially believed -- and that seems to be true. According to an IIHS study on the subject, drivers of vehicles that perform well in its crash tests are indeed less likely to die in an actual crash than drivers of cars that perform poorly.

The study, which was released in 2011, found that drivers of a car rated Good in an IIHS crash test were 70 percent less likely to die in a driver's-side crash than those behind the wheel of a car rated Poor. The same was true for other IIHS ratings: Acceptable, which slots just below Good, had only a slightly worse safety record than Good, while both beat out Marginal -- the rating just above Poor.

Although a similar study has not been carried out with NHTSA tests, we suspect that the results would be fairly similar, especially since the agency has gone to a more thorough overall crash-test rating after the 2011 model year. Cars now must pass two side-impact tests in addition to a front-barrier test, which means the testing procedure is more comprehensive, and it's harder to earn NHTSA's coveted 5-star ranking.

Our Take

No crash-test rating will ever be able to account for every single type of crash that you might encounter on the road. Fortunately, the plethora of tests carried out by NHTSA and IIHS do a good job of getting as close as possible. If you're interested in buying a car and you place a special importance on safety, checking crash-test results is an excellent way to put your mind at ease.

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Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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