There are as many different ways to look at the factors that make cars safe as there are different cars. Most people think of crash test results first. Important, yes, but take a closer look. Weight and size are critical factors that rank right up there with crash worthiness. Physics teach us that all else being equal, larger and heavier cars are safer than smaller and lighter vehicles. And in fact, statistics show that small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars. So only compare crash test results between cars in the same weight class.

Structural design is also key. The front and rear end of the car you choose (sometimes called the crumple zone) should be designed to absorb crash forces by buckling and bending in a serious collision. Also look for a structurally superior passenger compartment, the last line of defense in a collision. The restraint systemin a vehicle combines seat belts, airbags and head restraints. All three work together to hold you safely in place while the structure of the vehicle withstands the crash forces.

Look Up, Compare Crash Worthiness
There are many organizations that report crash test results, but only a few that actually do the testing. The two crash test big boys are the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The venerable Consumer Reports organization combines accident-avoidance data from its own testing with crash statistics from the NHTSA and the IIHS.

NHTSA tests several of the most popular vehicles on the road by conducting full frontal collisions into a fixed barrier at 35 mph. In 1997 they added a side impact test that documents the damage caused by a deformable barrier smacked into the side of a car at 38 mph. NHTSA also started assessing rollover potential for certain SUVs and trucks starting in 2001. Cars are rated from one to five stars in each category, five stars representing the least likelihood of suffering a life-threatening injury in an accident.

IIHS began conducting offset frontal crash tests in 1995. This test runs cars into a fixed barrier just like the NHTSA test except that only half of the vehicle contacts the barrier. The IIHS believes this crash type is more likely to occur in real life situations and better tests the integrity of the passenger cabin. IIHS rates a vehicle good, acceptable, marginal or poor. By the way, the Institute also publishes several excellent reports that compare cars by accident statistics. The Status Report documents driver death rates by model and make. The Injury, Collision & Theft Losses report looks at the ways in which insurance losses vary among different kinds of vehicles.

Consumer Reports integrates NHTSA and IIHS test results with its own accident avoidance data to create the CR Safety Assessment. Each year, CR engineers and test personnel run more than 40 new cars through numerous individual tests. One catch: you must subscribe to Consumer Reports to receive the CR Safety Assessment on specific new or used cars and trucks.

Accident Avoidance + Crash Protection = Survival
You might think the safest cars on the road are those that do best in crash tests. Important and often overlooked, however, are cars that will help you avoid accidents in the first place. Several factors contribute to a vehicle’s accident avoidance performance including:

  • Braking
    Your brakes should stop your car in as short a distance as possible while keeping the vehicle under control.
  • Emergency Handling
    The farther you can push a car’s handling limits before losing control, the more safe it will be in an emergency situation.
  • Tires
    Tire condition will greatly impact both braking and emergency handling.
  • Acceleration
    Vehicles that can get up to highway speed quicker make merging safer.
  • Driver’s Position & Visibility

    When you are positioned correctly, you are comfortable and enjoy better visibility. Some vehicles also have better sight lines than others.

    Just the Tip of the Car Safety Iceberg
    Of course there is loads more safety information to consider when buying a car than listed here. Great example – the pros and cons of sports utility vehicles (SUVs). While size and weight provide more protection in a collision, a SUV’s higher center of gravity also increases the chances of a rollover. Anti-lock brakes have shown outstanding stopping power on test tracks, but have disappointed many safety experts on the road. We’ve all heard about the well-publicized failure of certain brands of tires. And we could (and probably will) write an entire newsletter on the ubiquitous child car seat.

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