Shopping For a Safer Car?
So you've decided to buy a new vehicle, so now the question is which one? If you factor safety into your choice and most people do, then you'll probably want to know, which one's are safest to buy. Safety includes numerous aspects, so there's no direct answer, although it's clear that some vehicles can be safer than others. You can find safe vehicles in various price and style groups, but you should start by recognizing that safety involves avoiding crashes to begin with and then protecting you if and when a crash occurs.
All vehicles have basic features to reduce crash likelihood; lights so other motorists can see you, brakes to stop when needed, etc. Now innovative technologies are being added to help avoid crashes. These include features to alert you if you stray from your travel lane or warn if you're about to back into something. Most of these new features haven't been scientifically evaluated. We don't know yet if they reduce crashes, though some of them show promise. One that already is proving effective is electronic stability control. You'll find it by a variety of trade names (StabiliTrak, Stability Assist, etc.), but the systems are basically the same. They're extensions of antilock brake technology that help drivers maintain control in the worst situation such as loss of control at high speed. Then electronic stability control engages automatically to help bring the vehicle back in the intended line of travel. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this technology lowers the risk of a fatal single-vehicle crash by about half. It lowers the risk of a fatal rollover crash by as much as 80 percent.
Don't Count on Avoiding Crashes
Despite everyone's best efforts, millions of crashes occur each year. Tens of thousands of them involve deaths. So the most important aspect of shopping for safety is to choose a crashworthy vehicle; one that reduces death and injury risk during a crash.
The first crashworthiness attributes to consider are vehicle size and weight. Small, light vehicles generally offer less protection than larger, heavier ones. There's less structure to absorb crash energy, so deaths and injuries are more likely to occur in both single- and multiple-vehicle crashes. If safety is one of your major considerations pass up very small, light vehicles. This doesn't mean you have to buy the heaviest vehicle you can find. It wouldn't necessarily be safer because those weighing more than about 4,500 pounds afford only small injury risk reductions. Meanwhile they increase the injury risks for people in the other vehicles with which they collide.
BIGGER IS GENERALLY SAFER
Rates are adjusted to account for some differences in driver age and sex within and between vehicle types. Remaining differences in vehicle use patterns and driver demographics may account for some of the death rate differences.
While the risk of death generally is higher in lighter cars, SUVs, and pickups than in heavier ones, size and weight doesn't tell the whole story. Some light car models, for example, are safer than others. Some mid-weight SUVs are safer than others. And so on. This is because some models have more crashworthy designs. You can't tell this by looking at the vehicles. You need crash test results to make comparisons. Most popular vehicles have been tested, so buy a vehicle in your chosen size class with good front side and rear crashworthiness ratings.
TOP SAFETY PICK AWARDS
Criteria: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates vehicles good, acceptable, marginal, or poor based on performance in high-speed front and side crash tests plus evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts. The first requirement for a vehicle to become a Top Safety Pick is to earn good ratings in all three Institute tests. Another requirement is that winning vehicles must offer electronic stability control. This requirement is based on Institute research indicating that ESC significantly reduces crash risk, especially the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes, by helping drivers maintain control of their vehicles during emergency maneuvers.
However, don't compare ratings across vehicle size groups because size and weight influence occupant protection in serious crashes. Larger, heavier vehicles generally afford more protection than smaller, lighter ones. Top Safety Picks are the best vehicle choices for safety within size categories, but this doesn't mean a small car that's a Top Safety Pick affords more protection than a bigger car that doesn't earn the award.
To shop for safety, first determine the vehicle type and size that suit your purposes, keeping in mind that bigger generally is safer. Then it's easy to shop for a crashworthy vehicle by choosing one that earns a Top Safety Pick Award (according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)).
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) the models listed below afford the best occupant protection in front, side, and rear crashes, based on evaluations conducted by the IIHS in 2008. Another requirement is that every top safety pick must be equipped with electronic stability control as standard or optional equipment.
Buick LaCrosse 2010 models
Ford Taurus 2009-10 models
Hyundai Genesis 4-door models built after 11/08
BMW 3 series 4-door models
Chrysler Sebring 2010 models with optional electronic stability control
Dodge Avenger 2010 models with optional electronic stability control
Ford Fusion 2009-10 models with electronic stability control (optional in 2009, standard in 2010)
Honda Accord 4-door models
Lincoln MKZ 2010 models
Mercedes C class
Mercury Milan 2009-10 models with electronic stability control (optional in 2009, standard in 2010)
Subaru Legacy 2009-10 models
Subaru Outback 2010 models
Ford Focus 2-door models with optional electronic stability control
Honda Civic 4-door models (except Si) with optional electronic stability control
Honda Insight 2010 models with optional electronic stability control
Kia Soul 2010 models
Mazda 3 2010 models with optional electronic stability control
Mitsubishi Lancer with optional electronic stability control
Nissan Versa 2010 models with optional electronic stability control
Toyota Corolla 2009-10 models with electronic stability control (optional in 2009, standard in 2010)
Toyota Prius 2010 models
Volkswagen Rabbit 4-door models
Honda Fit with optional electronic stability control
Mercedes R class built after 9/08
Cadillac SRX 2010 models
Chevrolet Equinox 2010 models
Dodge Journey 2010 models
Ford Taurus X
GMC Terrain 2010 models
Hyundai Santa Fe
Lexus RX 2010 models
Lincoln MKT 2010 models
Mercedes M class 2009-10 models
Toyota FJ Cruiser
You can compare the front, side and rear crashworthiness of other passenger vehicles by visiting the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website at www.iihs.org.
Choosing a crash worthy design
The main aspects of design that determine vehicle crashworthiness are structure and restraints. A good structural design means a strong occupant compartment (safety cage), crumple zones to absorb the force of a serious crash, and side structure that can manage the force of a striking vehicle or struck object.
Until recently restraint systems typically included a basic lap/shoulder belt and frontal airbags. But now restraints are becoming more sophisticated. Crash-activated tensioners can reduce safety belt slack. Force limiters can reduce the chance of a rib injury from the belt itself. Advanced frontal airbags have inflation characteristics geared to specific crash circumstances, and other airbags are protecting people's heads and chests in side impacts. Even vehicle seats and head restraints, which can reduce the risk of neck injuries in rear impacts, are being upgraded.
The best way to evaluate a vehicle's structural design and restraint system is in dynamic tests that indicate how well people in real collisions would fare. Based on test performance, vehicles earn crashworthiness ratings from good to poor.
Crash testing for consumer information began with the federal government's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) of 35 mph frontal crashes head on into a rigid barrier. A demanding assessment of vehicle restraints, this test has led to numerous restraint system improvements. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) also conducts frontal tests for consumer information. These 40 MPH offset tests complement NCAP tests and have spurred improvements in vehicle structures. IIHS and NCAP tests are barrier impacts, equivalent to a vehicle striking the front of an identical vehicle, so the tests are easier for smaller vehicles. But a small car, for example, wouldn't be expected to fare as well in a crash with a larger, heavier vehicle. These days most passenger vehicles earn good ratings in frontal tests conducted by both IIHS and NCAP. Make sure this is true of any vehicle you're considering for purchase and then go on to assess its performance in side and rear tests.
IIHS and NCAP rate passenger vehicles based on tests that simulate front-into-side crashes. In the NCAP test, vehicles are struck by a moving barrier that mimics a car, so this test doesn't assess the risk to car occupants' heads when their vehicles are struck in the side by high-riding vehicles like SUVs and pickups. In the IIHS test, the moving barrier represents a pickup or SUV. This higher profile means the IIHS test is more demanding. In real-world crashes like this test, there's an elevated risk of head injury. Performance in the IIHS test varies widely, and the vehicles rated good have side airbags that protect people's heads. Studies of real-world crashes indicate that these substantially reduce fatality risk in serious side impacts. Some side airbags also are designed to protect people in rollover crashes. If side airbags are options in a vehicle you're thinking of buying, go ahead and purchase this option. Make sure the airbags are designed to protect your head, chest, and abdomen.
Compared with front and side crashes, rear impacts are less likely to cause life-threatening injuries. Yet rear-enders occur frequently and often cause neck injuries to people in struck vehicles. Such injuries can be painful and involve costly, long-term consequences. When a vehicle is struck in the rear, an occupant suddenly moves forward with the seat, and if the head isn't supported it will lag behind the body. This bends and stretches the neck backward in a whiplash injury. Seat/head restraints can reduce these injuries by keeping the head and body moving together in a rear impact. IIHS evaluates how well seat/head restraints accomplish this by first measuring restraint geometry (the higher and closer to the back of the head, the better) and then, if the geometry is at least acceptable, testing the seat and restraint together in a simulated rear impact. You'll have to shop carefully for a vehicle that has a good rear crashworthiness rating (not many do). A complication is that vehicles are sold with optional seat packages, so one model may include multiple seat/head restraint designs with different ratings. Match the seat package in the model you're buying to its rating (most seat packages have been rated). And before you drive away in your new car, check to see if the head restraint requires adjustment to extend as high as needed. If so, adjust it for optimal protection.
REMEMBER THE BASICS
Now that you know what safety aspects to look for, remember vehicle size matters, but so do crash avoidance features and crashworthiness ratings. Now that you know how to factor safety into your decision about a vehicle to purchase, you don't have to give up a stylish vehicle to get a safer one; you can have both.