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Car-Safety.Org Vehicle Buying Guide

A question car buyers don't ask often enough is, "Which cars are the safest?"  Most people have safety very low on their priority list when shopping for a vehicle.  This is unfortunate because it gives less incentive for automakers to add safety features and manufacture safer cars.  It is also unfortunate that there is much confusion about crash tests and safety features.  This guide will clarify some of these issues, and make some recommendations for safe vehicles in various categories.  Finally, there is no substitute for safe, defensive driving, and staying within the limits of your skills, your vehicle, and the conditions on the road.  Please drive safely.  Lives depend on it; motor vehicles are the #1 killer of kids and adults in age groups 1 to 34, causing more fatalites than many other causes combined.

Some automakers like to confuse the issue of which tests and features are important.  They may try to discredit tests where some of their vehicles do poorly, while endorsing the same test on models that performed well.  Others tout injury and fatality statistics.  While these may have an element of crashworthiness in them, they also have a large factor of driver profile that makes them less useful, especially when comparing vehicles from different classes.  Overall, you would like a vehicle that performs well in all crash tests, has a low rollover risk and a nice array of advanced safety features.  Vehicles with poor results in any test, those with injury/fatality ratings worse than most vehicles in their class, or those noted for a lack of advanced safety features should be avoided if safety is a priority.

Crash Tests and Rollover Ratings

All vehicles meet minimum government safety requirements and pass standard crash tests.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway safety (IIHS) also conduct additional tests, which can be used to compare the crashworthiness of vehicles over and above the minimum requirements.  In addition, the NHTSA has static and dynamic ratings for vehicle rollover risk.  These tests and comparisons are complementary; ideally a car should perform well in all of them.   Consumer Reports also has vehicle safety ratings in their annual April auto issues.

  • Full-width frontal crashes, like the NHTSA test, are one of the most common types of collisions, according to Crashtest.Com.  This test is usually considered a good test of restraint systems including seatbelts and airbags.

  • The IIHS conducts two separate offset frontal crash tests, one with moderate overlap and one with small overlap of the front end of the vehicle.  These crashes are often more severe to the vehicle's safety cage.  They are also conducted at a higher speed and tend to show a greater distinction among vehicles than the NHTSA frontal test.

  • The NHTSA frontal and IIHS frontal offset crash tests are complementary and should be used together.  It is difficult to design a vehicle to do well in all three tests.  For example, some claim manufacturers can make their frames stiffer and improve scores in the IIHS offset test safety cage and intrusion injury measures at the expense of the occupants' true overall safety and of those in other vehicles.  Stiffer frames also tend to transfer more energy to passengers inside, and this may reduce scores in the IIHS dummy and restraint measures, as well as the NHTSA frontal scores.  The two tests should be used together in an overall safety evaluation.  Safe designs can get top scores in both tests.

  • The NHTSA also conducts two side-impact tests, one with an element of forward motion typical in side impacts at intersetions, and the second simulating a crash with a tall pole.  Though somewhat less frequent, side impacts are the most deadly to properly restrained passengers because there is less structure between occupants and the oncoming vehicle.  The IIHS has now rated many vehicles with its side impact test.  Their side impact test simulates being struck by higher vehicles (SUVs), using dummies that represent smaller adults than those used in standard tests.  Again, these tests are complementary to the NHTSA side impact tests and vehicles should do well in both of them.

  • Fatal rear impacts are not very common, though even moderate rear crashes can cause serious injury due to whiplash.  For this reason, the IIHS includes a rear crash rating of vehicle seats and head restraints.  This rating is not a true crash test, but rather a measurement of how likely a properly adjusted vehicle seat and head restraint could protect an averaged sized dummy. The government does conduct a standard rear impact test for fuel system integrity, and all vehicles must pass.  New attention is also focused on 3rd-row seating that is very close to the rear glass and bumper.

  • Finally, rollovers are among the deadliest of motor vehicle accidents.  Many trucks and SUVs are particularly susceptible to rollovers, and this topic is of great interest.  A dynamic test and rating has been developed by the NHTSA, and one consumer publication has their own emergency maneuver which may predict rollovers in some cases.  Tall vehicles like SUVs have a much higher tendency to rollover.  These vehicles should be equipped with rollover side curtain airbags, stability control, independent suspensions and tire pressure monitors for safety.

Accident Avoidance

Crashworthiness is very important for the situations where you cannot avoid a collision.  On the other hand, some characteristics of a vehicle may help you avoid a crash in the first place.  It may be hard to find good comparisons among vehicles for these features, and some are so subjective that it varies from driver to driver.  Things to consider:

  • Braking.  Good braking is critical for safety.  A shorter stopping distance can prevent crashes.  In general, heavier vehicles take longer to stop, though there are exceptions.

  • Stability control and ABS.  Both these features can help drivers retain control of their vehicles in dangerous situations.  Stability control is an essential feature for top-heavy vehicles like trucks and SUVs that have an increased rollover risk. It can also help drivers of any vehicle to maintain control in adverse conditions. As stability control (ESC) is proving to be such an important safety feature, the NHTSA website now maintains a list of vehicles with stability control.

  • Tires.  Good tires are just as important as good brakes.  A quality tire can improve stopping distances, especially in poor weather.  Snow and Rain tires can improve performance greatly in those conditions.  Tire quality on new vehicles varies greatly, and few resources are available to compare them.

  • Handling.  Good handling is essential for emergency maneuvers needed to avoid accidents.  Poor handling can be dangerous, and can even lead to rollovers.  While there are measurements for handling, it can also be subjective and drivers may find the steering to be a factor.  In general, the independent suspensions found in cars and minivans allow for better handling than in most body-on-frame trucks and SUVs.

  • Acceleration.  Emergency acceleration can sometimes help avoid an accident.  Most cars are acceptable in this regard, but those with very poor acceleration might be avoided.

  • Traction control and AWD.  These features can also improve traction in poor weather or offroad conditions.  They are very useful in areas with significant snowfall and poor snow removal, or for those who frequently use their vehicles off-road.  These features do not necessarily improve braking or handling in adverse conditions!

  • Visibility.  Many factors contribute to this very important feature.  The design of the windows and pillars can cause serious blinds spots in some vehicles.  Higher vehicles tend to offer a better view of traffic, especially if you need to see through another high vehicle.  Seating position can also affect visibility.  Good headlights are important for night visibility.

Other Safety Features:

  • Weight, height and length.  All else being equal, according to the IIHS, Weight is an important factor to reduce injuries, at least until 4000 pounds.  The more your vehicle weighs, the less your momentum will change in a frontal crash with another vehicle.  This can reduce the forces on passengers in a multi-vehicle crash.  Vehicles with higher bumpers and seating positions may also have an advantage in some types of crashes.  Safe designs of crush space help give passengers more time to "ride-down" the crash and spread the high crash forces over a longer period of time.  Vehicles with only a few inches between their 3rd-row seat and the rear glass may put 3rd-row occupants at increased risk of injury.  This is mostly due to the risk of heavy adults loading the seat back mechanism to failure in a crash with significant intrusion.  If you have to seat passengers in the third row frequently, try to select a vehicle with at least a foot (preferably more) behind the rear seat, and one with head restraints and shoulder belts in all seating positions.

  • Vehicle construction.  This can be difficult to assess, but some vehicles have advanced safety cage designs and more effective crush zones.  You may find references to these features in a brochure or on the manufacturer's website.  Some large SUVs and pickups have very stiff body-on-frame construction based on a truck chassis.  This type of design may not only be lethal to passengers in smaller cars when hit by such a truck, but it also transfers more energy to passengers of the truck when it hits a stationary object (wall or pole) or another large truck.  Some vehicles have little to no roof re-inforcement for protection in a rollover, while others tout "roll hoops" or structural rings to protect the roof and sides from collapse.  Some trucks and SUVs, especially the heaviest ones, are exempt from certain passenger car safety standards.

  • Seatbelts.  These may be one of the biggest factors in auto safety.  Properly used, lap and shoulder belts save lives.  There are many advances in seatbelt design.  Newer systems have pre-tensioners and force-limiters, which may reduce the severity of injuries.  Some vehicles do not have a shoulder belt in the rear center position, which can be very important if you have a passenger or booster in that spot.  In addition, seat belts with height adjustments ensure that they fit properly.  Seatbelt designs, especially locking retractor mechanisms and latchplates, can also affect the installation of child safety seats.  Some designs optimized for adult passengers may be less suitable for certain carseats, while others may require special locking clips to get a reasonable installation.  Insist on vehicles that have a 3-point lap AND shoulder belt in ALL seating positions.  While lap-only belts may be used to install some child seats, they are not safe for adults or children in boosters.

  • Airbags.  Air bags also save lives, especially when used with seatbelts.  Newer systems use less inflation force more multi-tear inflation bags to reduce some types of airbag-related injuries.  Advanced airbags use sensors to detect the occupant and severity of a crash, then adjust the airbag force accordingly.  Older frontal passenger airbags that deploy horizontally tend to be more dangerous than those that deploy vertically.  Side airbags are also becoming more common.  Recent studies (IIHS) have determined that side impacts and rollovers are particularly deadly for occupants.  Head protection side airbags and curtains can reduce serious injuries in these crashes.  These advanced side airbags are now available in many models. Some have curtains or tubular airbags that extend to the second and third rows. Others offer rollover protection; they have sensors to detect a rollover then deploy the side airbags and keep them inflated longer.  Like stability control, side airbags are proving to be such an important safety feature that the NHTSA website now maintains a list of vehicles with side air bags. The IIHS has a similar list.

  • Head restraints.  Good headrests can prevent whiplash.  Some luxury models have dynamic systems, which can reduce head and neck injury.  It is also becoming more common to have head restraints in all seating positions.  Some vehicles lack headrests, especially in the center of the rear seat.  The lack of a headrest (and lap/shoulder seatbelt) can be very serious in a 3rd-row seat that is very close to the rear of the vehicle.  Should the seat back fail in a serious rear-end crash, the 3rd-row occupant will be at an even higher risk of injury.  A new IIHS test evaluates vehicle seats and head restraints for head and neck protection.  While rear-enders are not usually fatal, consumers should still consider these ratings.

  • Airbag cutoff wwitch.  Children and smaller adults may not be safe with a front passenger airbag.  Front airbags are especially dangerous to rear-facing carseats.  Children in boosters may also need a rear seat, side impact airbag disabled in some cases.  Some vehicles have switches to deactivate the airbag as a standard feature, and many others can have such a switch added if it is ever needed.  Dealers can also disable rear seat airbags on some models.

  • Lights and signals.  As mentioned, good headlights can improve night visibility.  daytime running lamps/lights (DRLs) may help increase visibility to other motorists and pedestrians.  Some complain that they can be distracting when they are too bright or aimed poorly.  Properly aimed foglights can help you see the lines at the side of the road in poor visibility conditions.  Bright, well placed turning signals let other drivers know your intentions.  Some cars have additional turning signals more easily visible from the side of the vehicle.  Some models also have reverse lights, for backing at night.

  • LATCH and tethers.  The universal carseat anchorage is standard in almost all passenger vehicles that are model year 2003 or newer.  Many vehicles had them for 2002 and 2001, and a few as far back as model year 2000.  These often make carseat installation easier.  Tether anchors vary in their weight limits for use with carseats that have a harness rated above 40 pounds and also in their location in the vehicle; please consult the automobile and child restraint manufacturer for guidance.  Some are limited to certain seating positions, while others may hamper visibility or block cargo space when the tether strap is attached.

  • Reverse sensing.  With the trend to higher, larger vehicles, some now come with reverse sensing detectors or backup cameras.  These can prevent impacts with children or objects that might be below your line of sight.  They can also be used to help in tight parking situations.

  • Spare tires.  Full size spare tires and easy to access spare tire locations can help roadside safety.  A compact spare can only serve limited duty, and some spares are hard to access under the vehicle.  This can be dangerous on the side of a road or in poor weather.  Some newer vehicles have run-flat tire systems and tire pressure monitors.  These may prevent blowouts and allow you to keep driving if you get a puncture.

  • Shift interlock.  Most, but not all vehicles have this feature to prevent children from accidently putting a vehicle into gear unless the brake is applied.

  • Child door/window locks.  Restricting the ability of young children to open doors and windows may be an important feature.  Also, look for power window switches that are mounted on the side of the door, with movement up and down.  Rocker switches and some other types are easily triggered by a child leaning out a window, who could then become stuck.

  • Emergency trunk release.  Trunks in many sedans can entrap small children.  Some cars have emergency release levers installed at the factory, and many others have retrofit kits available.

  • Cargo nets and hooks.  Unsecured objects can be deadly in a severe crash, even those in a trunk of a sedan.  If you frequently have items in your trunk or cargo area, secure them safely.

  • Mirrors.  Often overlooked, mirrors may help overall visibility outside the vehicle.  Small mirrors may leave blind spots. Auto-dimming rear-view mirrors can reduce temporary blindness from high or bright headlights.  Wide angle inside mirrors can help drivers monitor children in back while keeping their head forward.

  • Automatic crash notification.  A few manufacturers have included systems that can automatically notify authorities in the event of a crash.

  • Ergonomics and comfort.  These are very subjective issues, but may help drivers keep their attention on the road.  Good controls layout, seats that provide good support and hands-free cellphone systems are just a few examples of features to consider.  Smaller drivers may appreciate the adjustable pedals found in some vehicles.

  • Integrated child safety seats.  These are often touted as a safety feature, but may not be the best choice for a primary child restraint.  On the plus side, they are always installed properly and they are very convenient to fold away for an adult passenger.  They are certainly very safe if they fit your child properly and are used correctly.  There are some important disadvantages to consider before insisting on having a built-in carseat:
    • Emergency personnel often prefer to remove a child in a separate carseat.  This keeps the child immobilized in case of head/spinal injury, and allows for safer transport in the ambulance.
    • Integrated seats do not function rear-facing.  Rear-facing is safest for children, and most aftermarket models allow for rear-facing use to 35 or 40 lbs.
    • Integrated seats do not usually have any form of side impact protection.  Many aftermarket seats have some form of protection, and a few have special foam or plastic specifically for side impacts.  Deep wells on the side also help keep a sleeping child's head more upright.
    • Harnesses on some integrated seats can be difficult to adjust, and may not fit tightly, especially on smaller children.  This can lead to an unsafe fit, and make it easier for a child to remove all or part of the restraint.  Some integrated seats have limited or no harness height adjustment, a feature found on most aftermarket seats.  This means a child may be too tall for an integrated seat well before they exceed the weight limit.
    • Using an integrated carseat as your primary restraint may leave you without a method to transfer your child to another vehicle (relative, caregiver, vehicle being repaired, etc.).
    • The comfort on some integrated seats is far below the level found on most aftermarket carseats.  Integrated seats also tend to be less comfortable for an adult when folded.
    • Optional integrated seats are often more expensive than most aftermarket child restraints.

Resources and Recommended Vehicles

It is now easy to find models with the top "5-star" or "Good" ratings in nearly all of the NHTSA and IIHS safety ratings.  Also insist on side curtain airbags in all rows of seating as well as electronic stability control.  These features are proving to be so effective that they will be required on all new vehicles soon.  Until then, you may have to purchase them as an option or trim level package on some models.

While we recommend vehicles which received the highest ratings and stand above other models, there are many good options which we do not list.  Regarding crash tests, our general advice is to avoid vehicles that earned "Poor" or "Marginal" ratings in the IIHS offset and side impact tests.  Also, be wary of those getting "3-stars" or less in any of the NHTSA crash tests or rollover ratings.  Our logic is that manufacturers should be able to design vehicles that do well in these controlled tests that simulate the most common fatal crashes.  The test procedures are well known to manufacturers.  We have little confidence that vehicles which do poorly in these established tests will do any better in real-world crashes, which may vary greatly.  In fact, vehicles that perform well in both the NHTSA frontal and IIHS offset and Side crash tests have been shown to reduce the risk of fatal injury in the most common and severe types of real world crashes.  We also suggest that you carefully test the fit of ead restraints for regular passengers, particularly if your vehicle received a "Marginal" or "Poor" rating in the new IIHS rear crash test. Finally, avoid vehicles noted for poor handling, braking, or visibility, and pay careful attention to these factors when you test drive.  At minimum, we hope we have given consumers food for thought regarding safety, and that our links have provided more detailed information regarding safety comparisons.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (CDC) and SAFE KIDS USA, motor vehicle crashes are the #1 killer for children and adults in age groups 1 to 34.  With a little research before buying a new vehicle or carseat, you can easily reduce this risk.  Driving unimpaired and using seatbelts and child restraints is also essential for safety.

Related Resources on Vehicle Safety and Selecting the Safest Car, Minivan or SUV for your Family

Have More Questions?

The information and links should answer many questions.  We would be very happy to try to answer any questions you may have regarding specific features or vehicles.  Please post them at our FORUMS.

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