What Makes a Car Safe?
Has anyone ever told you that you can’t judge a book by its cover? Commonly used to warn that you can’t tell anything about a person based on their looks, or what they’re wearing, or what they’re driving, this rule of thumb is also true when it comes to cars.
Based on a vehicle’s appearance, or what you may have heard about a particular make and model, in most cases you cannot judge whether or not a given car, truck, or SUV is safe. For example, if you want to get an SUV because you heard they’re safe, that’s generally true but is inaccurate in specific cases.
There are four primary factors to research and consider in your quest to buy a safe vehicle. They are crash worthiness, vehicle weight, vehicle center of gravity, and safety equipment. But even after you’ve purchased a safe new or used vehicle, the way you maintain and drive the vehicle also impacts its safety.
Research crash-test ratings
Two different entities conduct crash tests on new vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the federal agency that measures vehicle safety against standards it last updated for the 2011 model year. The NHTSA uses a 5-star rating system to communicate crash-test results to consumers.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is a non-profit organization funded by automobile insurance companies. It has set tougher crash-protection standards than the NHTSA, and regularly updates the requirements for a vehicle to earn a coveted “Top Safety Pick” rating.
The IIHS has also set effectiveness standards for driving assistance and collision avoidance technologies, such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and others. Additionally, the IIHS rates accessibility to Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children (LATCH), headlight effectiveness, and a vehicle’s roof crush strength.
That last measure is important in the event a vehicle rolls over in a collision. To determine the potential for this to happen, the NHTSA provides a rating that predicts a vehicle’s ability to resist a rollover event in an accident.
Before you buy a vehicle, it is important to consult both sets of crash-test ratings. Sometimes, a vehicle will perform well in one set of evaluations, but perform poorly in the other.
Personally, I assign greater importance to the results from the IIHS. In fact, my wife and I will not buy a new family car until it has been tested by the IIHS, and earns a “Top Safety Pick.”
Heavier is better
The heavier your vehicle is, the better it will protect you in a collision.
Crash-test ratings for a given vehicle are valid when compared to other vehicles of a similar size and weight. In a collision involving a large vehicle and a small vehicle, the large vehicle wins.
Nearly a decade ago, the IIHS performed a special series of crash tests to illustrate how the laws of physics impact vehicle safety.
The organization took three small cars that earned top crash-test ratings, and crashed them into midsize cars made by the same car company. In every test, the larger car did a better job of protecting its occupants than did the smaller car.
If safety is important to you, you want to buy the heaviest vehicle you can. Just keep in mind that heavier vehicles also tend to consume more gas. And they still need to get top-notch crash-test ratings.
Newer is better
Beneath a car’s exterior skin is a structure, or vehicle architecture. Most vehicles use steel for this structure, though other materials, such as aluminum and carbon fiber, may also be employed. These more expensive materials are, naturally, typically found in more expensive vehicles.
During the past 20 years, car companies have made significant advancements in vehicle architecture design. From engineering crumple zones and crash-energy dispersion paths to employing high-strength and ultra-high-strength steel in specific areas, new cars are much safer than they were a decade ago.
Furthermore, newer vehicles typically include safety features that can help you to avoid an accident in the first place.
Therefore, if safety is important to you, then you’ll want a heavy, newer vehicle to drive.
Low center of gravity is better
I know what you’re thinking. If a heavier and newer vehicle is safest, then I need a big truck or SUV.
Another factor you must consider is a vehicle’s rollover resistance rating. Both the NHTSA and the IIHS rate vehicles for their likelihood to roll over. Rollover accidents can happen due to sudden steering inputs, sliding on wet or icy roads and then hitting dry pavement, sliding off the road or into a curb, or a collision.
Check out the video associated with this road-rage incident in Southern California.
In the video, a Nissan Sentra loses control, ultimately colliding with a Cadillac Escalade EXT*. The Nissan spins around on the pavement. The Cadillac, when hit, slides sideways and immediately flips over.
Every crash is different, but given equal circumstances, a vehicle with a lower center of gravity is less likely to flip over than a vehicle with a higher center of gravity.
If you’re so inclined, Car and Driver provides an excellent explanation of a vehicle’s center of gravity and how the publication calculates it for its test cars.
If you’re not edumacated in the maths, know this: the taller a vehicle sits off the ground, the more likely it is to behave like the Cadillac in the road-rage video following a loss of control.
Modern vehicles are increasingly equipped with safety technologies that are designed to prevent a collision from occurring in the first place. Stability control is required on all new vehicles, and starting with the 2018 model year, every car, truck, SUV, and van sold in America is required to have a reversing camera.
In addition to these mandated technologies, many automakers are voluntarily pursuing improved safety by offering features such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and prevention, blind-spot warning, and rear cross-traffic alert systems.
Some people don’t like these features. Whether because they are uncomfortable with relinquishing control to technology, or because these systems can sometimes issue false warnings that can startle a driver, if you’re not used to how they work and how they feel from behind the wheel, they can be disconcerting.
Having now been exposed to these technologies for well over a decade, I am comfortable with most of them. And the latest and greatest versions work with impressive accuracy and refinement while making it easy for a driver to adjust sensitivity levels, and to switch them on and off as is desired.
Other important factors
Beyond the issues discussed above, you need to properly maintain your vehicle for optimum safety. Bald tires, broken lights, dirty windows, and fading brakes can all contribute to increased likelihood for loss of control and a collision.
Choosing proper seating and mirror positions is important, too. If you sit low and reclined, it is hard to see out. Your side mirrors should show just a little bit of your own vehicle for orientation purposes. Otherwise, they ought to be positioned for as wide a view of your blind spots as is possible.
Finally, it should go without saying that driving when you are drunk, high, sleepy, or distracted is a bad idea. Nothing good comes of that.
What to buy?
Your budget dictates what you can afford.
Regardless of how much you have to spend, choose the newest and heaviest car possible, and preferably one that has a lower center of gravity.
Also, make sure it rates highly in both NHTSA and IIHS crash tests and in terms of rollover resistance ratings.
You are unlikely to find the perfect vehicle that meets all of these criteria. Especially when you also factor in gas mileage, vehicle design, interior comfort, preferred performance levels, utility requirements, and other factors that guide your purchase decision.
Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to emphasize vehicle safety during the decision-making process.
For example, when my wife and I were shopping for a new car in the summer of 2017, we started with the vehicles that earned a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the IIHS, and whittled the list down from there.
Now, when we pile our family into our midsize crossover SUV, I’m not as worried as I might otherwise be about what might happen if we encounter a drunk driver, or get caught up in a road-rage incident.
That’s because as far as deciding on a family car, I’ve done my best to ensure that my kids live longer than I do.
Source: NY Daily News
Author: Christian Wardlaw
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