How to Choose a Safe Car

The car industry is well ahead of most car buyers on safety issues. Sadly, though it is no longer only the Swedish car-makers pushing safety, the old adage that ‘safety doesn’t sell’ still seems to be true. Too many people think ‘it won’t happen to me’ and those who actively seek cars with high safety ratings and maximum airbags tend to be those who have found out the hard way that these things are worth having. But safety is not a waste of money and is an important car-buying consideration that could save your life.

People often underestimate the forces involved in an accident and the speed at which things happen. The braking distance at 30 mph is 14 meters, and that would throw you forwards hard, but in a crash the car stops in the length of its own bonnet (you hope) so even at only 30 mph you’re thrown forward with a force equivalent to 30 times your own weight.

#1. Seatbelts

Safe car - seatbelts

Fitting seatbelts in cars has been mandatory for many years so you are unlikely to buy anything, other than a classic, without them. Inertia-reel seatbelts allow freedom of movement and lock if pulled suddenly. Most cars on the road today have these in the front and the two outer rear seats. Some cars may have a fixed lap belt only in the middle rear seat but many modem cars replace this with a three-point inertia-reel belt which is far safer.

Seatbelt pre-tensioners add to the belts’ effectiveness. When an impact occurs they react in fractions of a second to tighten the belt, removing any slack and compressing padded clothes to catch you that bit quicker. Most cars have these on the front seats now and some luxury cars also have them in the back.

#2. Head Restraints

Head restraints are not head rests, but an important safety feature, working with seatbelts and saving you from a potentially crippling injury. In a crash, when you go back into the seat after the belt has caught you, or if the car is hit from behind, your neck is whipped back with great force.

At best you get neck ache for a few days, but at worst it can cause you to become a paraplegic or even prove fatal. A properly adjusted head restraint can stop this happening, so check your chosen car has ones that can be adjusted so the top is at least at your eye level. Sadly, some cheap cars still do not have head restraints in the back.

#3. Airbags

Safe Car - Air Bags

However effective seatbelts are, your body still folds forwards on impact, which brings the driver’s head and chest down on the wheel while the passengers’ heads either hit the fascia or the backs of the front seats. In addition, limbs are thrown around, glass may come flying out of the side windows and, in side-impacts and roll-overs, your head can be smashed sideways and doors can be crushed against occupants. This is where airbags come in.

These are devices hidden behind the car’s interior trim which, when triggered by an impact, inflate to cushion and protect. Most systems require at least two sensors to be satisfied there is an impact so the likelihood of them being triggered unnecessarily is low. When they do go off it is with a pop that you’re unlikely to notice in a crash. A full-size driver’s airbag is fully inflated in about half the time it takes to blink so they do their job so quickly most people are unaware they’ve gone off until they see the collapsed bag after the crash. They deflate instantly, so will not get in your way if you still need to steer the car.

In short, you have nothing to fear from airbags – unless you plan to try taking the steering wheel or fascia apart – and the more of them you have, the safer you will be.

Most new cars now have at least a driver’s airbag in the steering wheel and a front passenger airbag in the fascia above the glovebox. If you need to put a child seat on the front passenger seat, make sure the passenger airbag can be disabled.

Other airbags a car may have are side, curtain and knee bags. Side bags protect against side impacts and are placed in the sides of the seats, usually only the front ones. Curtain airbags drop down over the side windows to protect occupants’ heads from hitting the glass or pillars and some are full length while others only protect the front passengers. Knee airbags are still fairly rare and are located in the steering column to protect the driver’s knees. A few luxury cars also have airbags in the backs of the front seats to protect back seat passengers.

If any of these bags are extras in a new car it is worth buying them if you can afford them, but be aware that when you trade a car in you rarely get back the cost of extra safety items.

#4. Child Safety

If you have young children, cars with Isofix child seat fixings are worth seeking. This is an International Standards Organization system for fitting child seats that locks the seat to the car’s body (the seat has to be Isofix, too). This is much safer because the seat effectively becomes part of the car and the system is intended to be foolproof after it was found that around 80 per cent of non-Isofix seats were incorrectly fitted.

#5. NCAP

NCAP - Safe Car

All cars have to comply with international safety legislation relating to how they cope with a crash, but newer cars are generally safer. Look out for details of how the car fared in the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), of which there are European and American versions. This is an independent test programme where cars are crash tested and rated for adult and child occupant safety as well as pedestrian impact safety.