Written by Anna Kučírková, September 10, 2019.
When purchasing any new car, topping the must-have wish list for practically every new car buyer is a safe vehicle. New technology and crash test ratings are the subjects that garner most of the attention regarding vehicle safety, and rightfully so. Not only do they make cars safer, but they also increase the overall comfort and enjoyability of driving.
Modern automobile safety encompasses a variety of systems to keep a driver and their passengers safe.
From uncomplicated features like the seatbelt to sophisticated technologies such as lane warning systems to the car's overall design, car manufacturers (as well as government regulations) are working to build new cars, trucks, and SUVs that are safer than ever.
Here's a look at what's helping to keep our automobiles safe and few things you, as the car owner, can do to make them even safer.
Car Design and Crash Tests
Safe cars always start with the design of the vehicle itself. Your injuries and survival of a crash often come down to how well your vehicle was designed and built to withstand certain accidents.
Two entities - the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) - conduct new vehicle crash tests that rate performance in various accident scenarios.
For complete listings on how well cars perform in each of their testing environments, you can visit theNHTSA or IIHS rating sites. A few things to consider when researching new cars and their safety designs include:
- Newer cars tend to have more safety features than older models and therefore are safer overall.
- Every car has a blind spot (or two or three). Check these areas when test driving a vehicle to ensure your comfort level with them, and whether the car possesses any safety systems to overcome them.
- Larger, heavier cars are typically safer and stand up better in accidents than smaller ones.
- Trucks and SUVs while more stout than smaller vehicles also tend to be more top-heavy, with higher centers of gravity. This makes them more prone to rollovers during accidents.
- Smaller cars usually handle better and prove easier to control when trying to avoid hazards than large sedans, trucks, or SUVs
As with most big purchases, there are trade-offs when deciding which vehicle is right for you. To find a car that meets your safety needs, take into account the car's overall design along with the safety features it includes.
Active Safety Systems
The advanced technology behind modern safety features isn't yet fully standard on all vehicles, but they are quickly becoming so across all makes and models.
Below is a list of some of the most prevalent safety systems currently in use:
- Adaptive Cruise Control: This advanced form of cruise control keeps your vehicle at a safe, consistent distance from the car in front of you. Some automated systems can even slow your car down (or bring it to a complete stop) and speed it up in accordance with the surrounding traffic.
- Automatic Emergency Braking: Your brakes will be automatically applied when the system's monitors detect an impending collision. Two forms of this safety system include one that operates at city speeds and one that works at higher highway speeds.
- Blind Spot Warning: One of the most common safety features on new cars, blind spot sensors use either a visual or audible (or both) warning that a car or other object has entered your vehicle's blind spot.
- Forward-Collision Warning: System provides a visual or audible (or both) warning to avoid a collision.
- Lane Assistance Systems: Three systems help you maintain your vehicle's lane position
- Lane Departure for when you cross lane markers without intent to do so
- Lane Centering which provides active steering assistance to keep your vehicle centered in the lane it's traveling
- Lane Keeping which provides active steering assistance (as well as breaking) when crossing lane markers
- Pedestrian Detection: This system is designed specially to warn the driver of pedestrians or in more advanced cars, cyclists. Those advanced warning systems may also apply the brakes automatically to avoid hitting the pedestrian.
- Rear Automatic Emergency Braking: Automatic deployment of breaks to avoid backing into an object or another car behind the vehicle.
- Rear Cross-Traffic Warning: Alerts a driver via visual or audible (or both) warning of a rear-approaching vehicle that will soon be within range of your car's rear camera.
When shopping for a new car, it's essential to recognize that car manufacturers may identify these safety features with different names. They could also be part of a vehicle's higher-priced premium trim package, which means they may not always come standard.
Although technology is making cars safer than ever, there remain some aspects of vehicle safety that fall to the owner to monitor. Consider these your intangibles - items that tech doesn't currently monitor or isn't based solely on the age and model of car you drive.
Yes, we know that many new models of vehicles have tire pressure monitoring systems that keep an eye on when air is getting low. But not all cars and trucks have this system (especially if your vehicle was made prior to 2006). Keeping your tires safe also requires more than just the proper amount of inflation.
The Car Care Council recommends a four-step inspection that any car owner can do at home to make sure their tires are road-ready. The steps include:
- Check tire pressure in all tires, including the spare, which is of particular importance, since tire pressure monitor systems cannot properly read the spare's air pressure
- Check your tire's treads by using a penny - if you can see Lincoln's head peeking above any of the treads, then it could be time for replacements
- Check for irregular wear such as unevenness between the front and rear tires or more wear on the outer edges of a tire versus the middle; also look for rough surfaces or cups or dips in the tread - uneven wear could indicate your wheels need realignment
- Check your tire's rubber for any cuts, bald spots, bulges, or any foreign objects or other deformities that could be a precursor to a flat tire or even worse, a blowout
Beyond the visual and tire pressure inspections, you should also verify that you have all the tools necessary to change a flat tire. Most flats can be changed in under 30 minutes. Don't be unnecessarily stranded because you left the tire jack at home.
Of all of the safety features included in an automobile, none are more important than seat belts. According to stats compiled by the NHTSA, in 2017, 47% of passenger vehicle occupants killed in crashes were not wearing a seatbelt. The NHTSA also estimates that seatbelts saved almost 15,000 lives.
A 2015 report, also from the NHTSA, indicated that wearing a seat belt decreases the risk of fatal injury by 45%, and moderate to critical injury by 50%.
For something so critical, the DIY safety check you can perform on your seatbelt is surprisingly easy. Look for any fraying or loose stitching in the belt's webbing and make sure the buckle is damage- and rust-free and quickly latches and releases with little effort.
Extend and retract the belt to verify that the locking mechanism "catches" as intended by the manufacturer. If any part of the seat belt is damaged, immediately have it inspected and repaired by your auto dealer.
There are few things in this world cherished more than our children. So as parents, it's essential to understand the proper safety measures when buying and installing your child's car seat. They play a critical role in saving your child should you be in an accident.
The steps to child car seat safety include finding the right seat for your vehicle, installing it based on the instructions from both the seat and automobile manufacturers, and staying alert to any recalls.
And always remember when your child is in the car with you.
If you have a child on the way or are looking to switch out your current child seat, the NHTSA has an excellent guide to help you.
Wipers (and your windshield)
Windshield wipers are often an afterthought on your vehicle. Infrequently used, wipers are perhaps the most underrated safety feature on your entire car. After all, if you can't see where you're going, how will you ever know if you got there?
Jokes aside, wipers are a critical part of staying safe when driving. It's recommended replacing your wiper blades every six to twelve months, based on the driving conditions of where you live or their overall use.
You can perform a simple test of their effectiveness by running your wiper fluid. If the blades squeak, smear or streak, or skip, you should consider replacements.
In addition, regularly check your windshield (and other windows and mirrors) for any imperfections, including nicks, scratches, or blemishes. Even the tiniest chip or abrasion can morph into an unsafe (and costly) crack running across your entire windshield. Catching it early saves you from a bigger headache later on.
An additional consideration to car safety includes paying attention to manufacturer recalls. Typically, if purchased through a reputable auto dealer, they will notify you by mail, email, or even phone or text of any safety recalls or necessary repairs. If you take your car to the dealer for regular service, checking safety systems is often part of the deal.
Airbag recalls are of particular importance considering the recent spike in incidents associated with Takata airbags. You can use the NHTSA SaferCar website to check for any recalls - airbags or otherwise - by inputting your car's VIN number.
It's critical to remember, however, that the safest car in the world cannot overcome an unsafe driver. Distracted driving is a serious safety concern. In 2018, it accounted for over 4,500 driving deaths.
Although your car might protect you, it's ultimately you, the driver, who's most responsible for keeping you and your passengers safe.