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
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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.