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.
1. 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, the IIHS runs a vehicle at 40 mph into a deformable barrier. Instead of engaging the whole width of the car's front end, the barrier covers just the 40 percent of the car in front of the 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 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. You can find ratings for all tested vehicles on the IIHS website.
2. 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 the scores for all crash-tested vehicles online at www.safercar.gov.
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.
3. Electronic stability control (ESC)
Electronic stability control (ESC) is designed to 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 a rollover. The IIHS estimates that 10,000 lives per year would be saved if all cars had ESC. NHTSA required ESC as standard from the 2012 model year.
4. Rollover resistance
Taller vehicles such as SUVs and pickups have a high center of gravity, which makes them more likely to roll over than passenger cars. (According to the IIHS, SUVs have a rollover rate that is two to three times higher.)
We believe that vehicles that tip up in NHTSA's test have a potential stability problem and CR will not recommend them, regardless of their star rating. In order for an SUV or pickup to be recommended, it must either have been included in NHTSA's test and have not tipped up or, if it has not been tested, it must offer electronic stability control.
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 nearly all vehicles. ABS prevents the wheels from locking up during a hard stop, something that can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle. 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.
6. 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.
7. Air bags
By law, every new passenger vehicle comes equipped with dual front air bags. But the sophistication of the systems can vary. Most upscale vehicles and many others now have some version of a "smart" air-bag system, which gauges several variables to tailor the deployment of the vehicle's front and side air bags. Side air bags are now common for front occupants, and Consumer Reports highly recommends head-protection side air bags where they're available.
8. 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, still 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.
Many vehicles also include safety-belt pretensioners and force-limiters. Pretensioners automatically take up the slack in the seat belt during a frontal crash, while force-limiters relax the safety-belt tension following the initial impact to prevent chest and internal injuries caused by the belt itself.
9. Head restraints
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 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 website provides head-restraint or rear-crash ratings for many models.
10. 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. 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 had a universal system called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) that made the attachment easier and more secure. But the system doesn't work equally well in all vehicles. 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.
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.
More from Consumer Reports:
Consumer Reports' top scoring cars
Best & worst car values
5 great cars that won't bust your budget