IIHS Top Safety Pick vs. Top Safety Pick+: What's the Difference?

Here’s what a vehicle has to bring to the table to earn that extra “+”

IIHS Crash TestGetty Images

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has rated brand new cars, trucks and SUVs based on how well they protect occupants in a crash for almost three decades. Starting in 1995, the IIHS began moderate overlap frontal crash testing as a complement to the crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Over time, the number and type of tests and safety considerations undertaken by the IIHS evolved alongside modern automotive design and manufacturing practices.

Currently, the IIHS divides the best-performing automobiles into two specific categories: those that earn the Top Safety Pick badge, and those that garner Top Safety Pick+ recognition. Let's take a closer look at what each of those ratings mean, and the specific differences between the two.

Top Safety Pick: More Than Just Crash Testing

The IIHS Top Safety Pick award is based on a combination of crash testing, accident avoidance technology, and headlight capability.

There are six specific crash tests performed on every vehicle submitted for evaluation. Two small overlap crashes, performed on both the driver and the passenger side of the vehicle, are joined by a front moderate overlap test. “Overlap” in this context refers to an impact where only a portion of the car’s bumper absorbs the impact with a barrier during a collision, which more accurately reflects real world accidents.

These tests are joined by side crash tests and a roof strength test (which measures the roof's resistance to being crushed), as well as examinations of how well head restraints perform during an impact. In addition, the IIHS evaluates the active safety systems (such as automatic emergency braking) available to prevent a front crash with either another vehicle or a pedestrian. Headlight performance is the final piece of the testing puzzle.

In order to earn Top Safety Pick status, a vehicle has to achieve the highest possible score in each of the crash tests (Good), while also achieving a Superior or Advanced ranking based on its crash avoidance system performance. Finally, the vehicle must offer the option of headlights that test as Good or Acceptable.

Lighting The Way to a '+' Rating

The IIHS Top Safety Pick+ ranking for 2022 requires a vehicle to adhere to all of the above, with one specific difference: Good or Acceptable headlights are required as standard equipment across every trim level. While that might seem like a small detail, the IIHS considers automotive lighting to be one of the most crucial technologies for avoiding an accident.

The Top Safety Pick+ testing criteria are a moving target, especially as larger and heavier vehicles become more common on the road. Next year, earning the same badge of honor will require passing a more difficult side-impact collision test, along with tighter criteria for automatic emergency braking when avoiding pedestrians at night.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.