10 safety checks to make before you buy

From crash tests to child seats, here's what to look for when comparing vehicle safety

Last updated: February 2014

You need to consider several factors when evaluating a vehicle's overall safety. They range from how it performs in an emergency-handling situation and how it 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 the 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.

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, to the front, side, and rear. The primary frontal crash series runs a vehicle at 40 mph into a deformable barrier. Instead of engaging the whole width of the car's front end, which the government's traditional front-crash test does, the barrier covers just the 40 percent of the car that's in front of the driver.
That's known as a frontal offset crash.

Using a deformable barrier instead of a rigid one, the test simulates a car-to-car, driver's-side-to-driver's-side collision, which is a common form of fatal crash. By focusing the crash on only a portion of the car's front, this test severely stresses the car's structural integrity and its ability to protect the area around the driver without collapsing.

The IIHS scores its frontal-crash results as Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor.

In 2012 the IIHS inaugurated a second set of frontal offset crashes, one that engages just 25 percent of the car's front end. Think of it as a head-on crash between two vehicles that meet left-headlight to left-headlight, or a single-vehicle crash into a utility pole or tree. In a crash like that the driver's foot well can deform, causing serious injury to a driver's lower legs, and the car pivots to the side, throwing the driver against the front door and window. It will take some time for the IIHS to accumulate enough results from the small-overlap tests to make meaningful comparisons across the car market. But early results show a wide range of performance from Good to Poor. You can find ratings for all tested vehicles on the IIHS website, at www.hwysafety.org.

Since 2003, the IIHS also has conducted its own side-impact tests, which simulate a vehicle being struck in the side at 31 mph by a vehicle the height and weight of a typical SUV or pickup. Two dummies representing small (5th percentile) women or 12-year-old children are positioned in the driver seat and the rear seat behind the driver.

IIHS also compiles rollover ratings by measuring roof strength.  The test uses a metal plate pushed down on one front corner of a vehicle's roof to see how much weight the roof can withstand.  Top scores go to vehicles that can withstand four times the vehicle's weight without much deformation.

New for 2014, the IIHS is evaluating forward collision warning systems based on performance in tests at 12 mph and 25 mph. Additional points are awarded for autobrake. Those vehicles that offer this next level of safety can now earn the Top Safety Pick+ award

For more information on crash testing and ratings, see our Crash test 101 report.

Government crash-test ratings

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducts a full frontal crash test, a side impact and rollover assessment. Each is scored on a five-star scale, with fewer stars indicating a greater likelihood of serious injury. You can check the scores for all crash-tested vehicles online at www.safercar.gov.

NHTSA's frontal test is a good indication of how well a vehicle's safety belts and air bags protect the 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 identical vehicles, each traveling at 35 mph. Instrumented crash dummies in the two front seats record the crash forces they sustain and scores are assigned for the driver and front passenger.

NHTSA's side-impact test simulates an intersection-type collision using a 3,015 pound barrier moving at 38.5 mph into a standing vehicle. Scores are assigned to the driver and the left-rear (impacted side) passenger. In 2011, NHTSA improved their ratings evaluation and also added a side-pole test using different sized dummies.

Both the NHTSA and IIHS frontal crash-test results are comparable only to vehicles within the same weight class as the tested car. If vehicle weights are very dissimilar, the results could be very different.

For more information on crash testing and ratings, see our Crash test 101 report.

Electronic stability control (ESC)

Consumer Reports' auto experts highly recommend electronic stability control, particularly on SUVs. ESC is designed to help keep the vehicle under control and on its intended path during cornering, and prevent it from sliding or skidding. If a vehicle begins to go out of control, the system selectively applies brakes to one or more wheels and cuts engine power to keep the vehicle on course. On SUVs, stability control can help prevent the vehicle from getting into a situation that could lead to a rollover. While electronic stability control has improved the emergency handling on the vehicles we have tested, it's not a cure-all for inherently poor-handling vehicles. Its effectiveness depends on how it is programmed and how it is integrated with the vehicle. It also cannot overcome the laws of physics.

Automakers often refer to their stability-control systems by different names (see our guide to safety features), so if it's not clear be sure to ask if a vehicle has electronic stability control.

A number of studies of ESC have been completed and all point to a substantial reduction in accidents and deaths. The IIHS has estimated that if all cars had ESC, it would save 10,000 lives per year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration now requires ESC to be standard on all new vehicles.

Rollover resistance

Taller vehicles, such as SUVs and pickups, are more likely to roll over than passenger cars. According to the IIHS, SUVs have a rollover rate that is two to three times that of passenger cars.

A taller vehicle has a higher center of gravity, which makes it more top-heavy than one that sits lower to the 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.

To give consumers a way of telling which vehicles have a higher rollover propensity than others, NHTSA has developed a five-star rating system called the Rollover Resistance Rating (RRR). That rating used to be based solely on a vehicle's "static stability factor (SSF)," which is determined from measurements of its track width and center of gravity. Because the SSF is based on measurements of a stationary vehicle rather than on a dynamic road test, the rating doesn't account for vehicles' different suspension designs, tires, or the presence of a stability-control system—any of which can make a significant difference. Beginning with the ratings for 2004 models, NHTSA combined the SSF with a dynamic rollover test performed with moving vehicles.

NHTSA's rollover ratings can be found at www.safercar.gov. For specific information about a vehicle's star rating, click on "Search 5-Star Safety Ratings," then select the vehicle class, such as SUV, then its year, then the make and model. Scroll down to the heading Rollover, and a chart there will tell you whether the vehicle tipped (under Dynamic Test Result), and also its likelihood of rollover expressed as an exact percentage rather than a star.

You can also see comparison lists of all tested vehicles within a class (passenger car, SUV, etc.). From the www.safercar.gov home page, click on "Search 5-Star Safety Ratings" then select just the class, or class and model year.

Antilock brake system (ABS)

CR's auto experts highly recommend getting an antilock brake system (ABS), which is now standard on all new vehicles and has been standard on most for some years. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up during a hard stop, something that can cause the car to spin out. ABS almost always provides shorter stops, but, even more importantly, the system helps keep the vehicle straight and allows the driver to maneuver during a panic stop.

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.

Consumer Reports evaluates these factors on every vehicle it tests.

Air bags

By law, every new passenger vehicle comes equipped with dual front air bags. All new cars have some version of a "smart" air-bag system. It uses electronic sensors to gauge several variables, which, depending on the model, include crash severity, safety-belt use, the position of the driver's seat, and the weight and/or position of an occupant in the front-passenger seat. This information is used to tailor the deployment of the vehicle's front and side air bags.

Many systems withhold deployment on the passenger side if the seat is unoccupied (to save money on replacement) or if the seat is occupied by a person below a certain weight (to prevent possible injury from the bag). The government mandated "advanced" front air bags to be phased in all cars between the 2004 and 2007 model years. They deploy less aggressively or not at all, depending on a front passenger's size or position.

Side air bags are now common for front occupants. The basic side air bag deploys from the seatback or door, and is designed to protect a person's torso. Separate side bags that protect the head have become nearly universal as well. The standard design is a side-curtain bag that drops down from the headliner and covers both the front and rear windows. Consumer Reports highly recommends head-protection side air bags where they're available.

Safety-belt features

Three-point lap-and-shoulder belts provide the most protection in a crash, and most vehicles now have them in all seating positions. A few, however, may have only a lap belt in the center-rear position, which allows the upper part of the body to move forward in a crash or panic stop. The comfort of the belts is also important, because some people won't wear them if they're uncomfortable. Some vehicles, for instance, have front belts whose shoulder portion retracts into the seatback instead of the car's door pillar. Their advantage is that they move with the seat when the seat is adjusted fore and aft. But they can tug down uncomfortably on the shoulder of someone with a long torso.

Many vehicles also include safety-belt pretensioners and force limiters, which work with the air bags to protect you in a crash. Pretensioners automatically take up the slack in the seat belt during a frontal crash, helping to restrain and properly position people for the air bag. Force-limiters relax the safety-belt tension slightly following the initial impact, so they can help absorb some of a person's forward thrust. That helps prevent chest and internal injuries caused by the belt itself.

Head restraints

A car's head restraints are vital for guarding against the whiplash neck injuries that often accompany a rear-end collision. Restraints need to be tall enough to cushion the head above the top of the spine. Many cars' head restraints adjust for height. Look for those that lock in the raised position—a legal requirement for cars made since September, 2009. Those that do not lock can be forced down in a crash, losing effectiveness. Many cars' rear restraints are too low to do much good, which Consumer Reports notes in its road test reports. The IIHS web site (www.hwysafety.org) provides head-restraint or rear-crash ratings for many models.

Child safety

Child-safety seats save lives and should be used until a child is big enough to use the vehicle's regular safety belt. The conventional method of attaching a child seat uses the vehicle's safety belts. Often, incompatibilities between the car's seat and the child seat make a good, tight fit difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve.

For some years all new vehicles have had a universal system called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) that is designed to make attachment easier and more secure. But the system doesn't work equally well in all vehicles. Consumer Reports has found many cars with the LATCH attachment points sufficiently obscured that it's not easy to use them. Consumer Reports comments on the ease of installing child seats in its test reports. But the key is to try out a new car seat in your existing vehicle, or try out your existing car seat in a new vehicle before you buy either.

Another child-safety consideration is power-window switches. Children have accidentally activated a power window while leaning out and have been killed or injured by the window closing on them. The easiest types to inadvertently trigger are horizontal rocker and toggle switches on the door's armrest, which raise the window when pushed down or to the side. Lever-type switches, which are flush with the surrounding trim and only raise the window when pulled up, are a safer design.

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