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Navigating the Auto Safety Maze

Safety is high on the list for many people looking to buy a new car.

So many features can be considered when comparing cars for safety, where do you start?

There is crash testing, but some ratings are by the government, some by the private insurance industry, and they differ.

Woman with her checklistYou will hear about air bags, seatbelts, head restraint, stability control, rollover resistance, antilock brakes and more.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Which is most important depends on the person, driving conditions, and what’s most important to that person. Or all of the above.

For example a new mother is undoubtedly going to rank child safety much higher than, say, air bags.

Professionals who commute, particularly in areas where it rains or snows, might have more interest in antilock brakes.

Pickup truck owners, and particularly buyers of sport utility vehicles, are going to want to know more about rollover resistance.

Each safety feature is tested or weighed differently. If safety is a top priority as you buy a new or used car, make a checklist of what’s most important to you, and learn about the vehicle you have your eyes on.

Here we’ll give you some tips about what to look for.

Crash Testing for Dummies

Crash-test ratings grab headlines and the term itself is easily understood by the car-buying public. But are all rankings the same?

No. First let’s look at the insurance industry ratings.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is an organization focused on auto safety. It researches, conducts its own crash tests, and sets ratings.

A wrecked car with deployed airbagHistorically it has focused on the front-offset crash, where a vehicle at 40 mph hits a barrier with 40% of the front of a car, in front of the driver.

Instead of crashing head-on, the offset angle tests a car’s ability to protect the area around the driver.

The IIHS scores its results as Good, Acceptable, Marginal, or Poor. To see its ratings, visit Hwy Safety. Recently the organization began side-impact testing as well.

Side-impact testing is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s two types of crash tests. It does full frontal and side impact.

Both are scored on a five-star scale, with more stars meaning safer, and the possibility of bodily injury weighing heavily.

These stars are fairly well-known by auto consumers. To see scores, visit Safer Cars.

The NHTSA’s frontal test focuses on a car’s safety belts and air bags in terms of protecting occupants in specific impacts. The frontal test crashes cars into a rigid barrier at 35 mph.

The Administration’s side-impact test simulates a car going 17 mph and getting hit on the side by a 3,000-pound car rolling at 34 mph.

Stability Control, Antilock Braking, and More

Beyond how a car will respond in a crash, there are many features in automobiles designed to protect a person in a collision, and to prevent vehicular mishaps.

Electronic Stability Control
Helps keep a car under control during cornering and prevent sliding or skidding in emergency situations.

If a vehicle starts to go out of control, the system automatically applies braking where needed and reduces engine power to maintain the intended course.

Orange traffic conesCarmakers might carry different names for their stability-control systems, so if you’re confused, ask if a car has electronic stability control.

Antilock Brake System
Prevents wheels from locking and skidding during a hard stop.  Skidding can cause loss of control of a car.

Such systems can result in shorter stops, a straight course and better maneuvering during a difficult situation.

Front Air Bags
Every new car today is required by law to have dual front air bags. A challenge may be figuring out which air-bag system a car has, and what it means to passengers.

There is the “smart” air-bag system, which uses electronic sensors to deploy differently depending on the situation, such as severity of a collision. Basically the air bags can deploy differently for a parking lot mishap, than they would with a head-on collision.

Some systems will not deploy the passenger side if the seat is empty, saving money for replacements.

Side Air Bags
Are pretty common for new cars, and separate side bags to protect the head are growing in availability.

The Rest
Other key safety features include head restraints, which protect against whiplash and neck injuries, and child-safety seats.

Every new car now has a system called LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) designed to make attaching a child seat easier, and to make an attached child seat more secure.

Safety is important to everyone, however the type of enhancements vary from manufacturer and from model. Be sure to do your homework when shopping for a car to ensure you get the safest model for your lifestyle.

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