From crash tests to child seats, here's what to look for when comparing vehicle safety When choosing a new car, consider government crash-test ratings, as well as features like head restraints, electronic stability control, and rollover resistance.
There are many factors to consider when evaluating a vehicle's overall safety. They range from how it performs in an emergency-handling situation or protects its occupants in a collision to how easy it is to secure a child seat. When comparing vehicles, it's important to look at all appropriate variables, including safety-related ratings and features. Below, we list 10 safety checks that are worth reviewing before you make your final buying decision. 1. Government crash-test ratings The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducts two types of crash tests: full frontal and side impact. Each is scored on a five-star scale, with fewer stars indicating a greater likelihood of serious injury. You can check scores for all crash-tested vehicles online at www.safercars.gov.
NHTSA's frontal test is a good indication of how well a vehicle's safety belts and air bags protect occupants in specific types of impacts. The frontal test runs vehicles into a rigid barrier at 35 mph. That simulates a head-on collision between two vehicles of similar weight, each traveling at 35 mph. Instrumented crash dummies in two front seats record crash forces they sustain and scores are assigned for driver and front passenger.
NHTSA's side-impact test simulates a vehicle traveling at 17 mph being hit on side by a 3,000-pound car traveling at 34 mph. Scores are assigned to driver and left-rear passenger.
2. Insurance-industry crash-test ratings The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a safety-research group that conducts its own series of crash tests. In its frontal-offset crash, a vehicle is run at 40 mph into a deformable barrier. Instead of engaging whole width of car's front end, barrier covers just 40 percent of car directly in front of driver.
Using a deformable barrier simulates a car-to-car, driver's-side-to-driver's-side collision, which is a common form of fatal crash. By focusing crash on only a portion of car's front, this test severely stresses car's structural integrity and its ability to protect area around driver without collapsing.
The IIHS scores its frontal-crash results as Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor. You can find ratings for all tested vehicles at IIHS Web site, www.hwysafety.org.
Recently, IIHS has also begun conducting its own side-impact tests, which simulate being hit by a truck instead of NHTSA's 3,000-pound car. However, many vehicles have not yet been tested.
Both IIHS and NHTSA crash-test results are comparable only to vehicles within same weight class as tested car. If vehicle weights are very dissimilar, results could be very different.
3. Accident avoidance A vehicle's ability to help you avoid an accident is just as important as its crashworthiness. Key factors to consider are braking and emergency handling, although acceleration, visibility, driving position, and even seat comfort (which affects driver fatigue) also play a role.
4. Air bags By law, every new passenger vehicle comes equipped with dual front air bags. But sophistication of systems can vary. It's worth checking what type of air-bag systems a vehicle has, both in front and rear.
Many upscale vehicles now have some version of a "smart" air-bag system. It uses electronic sensors to gauge several variables, which, depending on model, include crash severity, safety-belt use, position of driver's seat, and weight and/or position of an occupant in front-passenger seat. This information is used to tailor deployment of vehicle's front and side air bags.
Dual-threshold and multi-stage front bags can deploy with varying force, depending on crash severity. In a lower-level collision bags inflate with limited force. In a more severe crash, bags inflate with more force and more quickly. Many systems withhold deployment on passenger side if seat is unoccupied (to save money on replacement) or if seat is occupied by a person below a certain weight (to prevent possible injury from bag).
Side air bags are now common for front occupants. The basic side air bag deploys from seatback or door, and is designed to protect a person's torso. Separate side bags that protect head are becoming increasingly available, as well. The most common design is a side-curtain bag that drops down from headliner and covers both front and rear windows. Consumer Reports highly recommends head-protection side air bags where they're available.
Side torso air bags are also included in rear seats of some models, but these can pose a risk for smaller children sitting out of position in outboard seat positions. In some models, rear side bags need to be activated by dealer.
5. Antilock brake system (ABS) CR's auto experts highly recommend getting an antilock brake system (ABS), which is available as standard or optional equipment on most vehicles. ABS prevents wheels from locking up during a hard stop, something that can cause driver to lose control of vehicle. ABS almost always provides shorter stops, but, even more importantly, system helps keep vehicle straight and allows driver to maneuver during a panic stop.
6. Rollover resistance Taller vehicles, such as SUVs and pickups, are more likely to roll over than passenger cars. According to NHTSA, SUVs have a rollover rate that is two to three times that of passenger cars. In 2002, 61 percent of all SUV fatalities and 45 percent of pickup-truck deaths were result of a rollover. By contrast, only 22 percent of passenger-car fatalities were because of a rollover.
A taller vehicle has a higher center of gravity, which makes it more top-heavy than one that sits lower to ground. In a situation where a vehicle is subjected to strong sideways forces, such as in a sudden cornering maneuver, it's easier for a taller vehicle to roll over.