Tips for Buying a Safe Vehicle


When buying a vehicle (new or used) it is important to make sure that it will be safe for everyone – the kids in the back and the adults in the front. Deciding which vehicle to buy can be overwhelming, but here are some must-have safety features that might help narrow down your list. In my opinion, these 3 are the non-negotiables (i.e. if the vehicle doesn’t have it, I wouldn’t buy it). At the bottom are some links to crash test ratings for new and used vehicles.


1. Electronic Stabilization Control (ESC)

Like most people, you have probably never heard of this technology – but it is expected to save more lives than the invention of the seat belt – as it PREVENTS crashes from happening in the first place!  If all vehicles were equipped with ESC, as many as 9,000 fatal crashes could be avoided each year in the US.

Electronic Stabilization Control (ESC) systems are marketed under various names, including dynamic stability control, vehicle stability control, dynamic stability and traction control, among others. The percentage of vehicles with this technology has increased tenfold since the 1998 model year. For the 2009 model year, ESC was standard on 73 percent of new passenger vehicle models and optional on 14 percent. ESC was standard on 74 percent of cars, 99 percent of SUVs, and 38 percent of pickups.

Curious about ESC?  Click here for a great explanation of ESC and how it works.
Curious whether your vehicle has ESC?  Click here to see all the vehicles since model year 1995 with ESC.

2. Side-Impact Airbags (SABs) that offer head protection to the front AND back seat passengers

Visit this website from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to learn which vehicles offer side airbags.  When you find a vehicle you are interested in, click on the “view details” button to learn about which type of side airbags are featured in that vehicle.  The ideal is one that offers head protection for the front AND back seat occupants.

There are three main types of SABs: chest (torso) SABs, head SABs, and head/chest combination (combo) SABs.

  1. Chest (torso) SABs are mounted in the side of the seat back or in the door and are designed to help protect the chest in a serious side-impact crash.
  2. Head SABs are usually mounted in the roof rail above the side windows and are designed to help protect the head in a side-impact crash. There are two types of head SABs: curtain SABs and tubular SABs. Curtain airbags drop down like a curtain to cover the windows, which means they can also protect passengers from flying glass when the windows break in a crash.
  3. Head/chest combination (“combo”) SABs are usually mounted in the side of the seat and are typically larger than chest (torso) SABs. Combo SABs are designed to help protect both the head and chest of an adult – they are usually found only for the front seats.
Many parents wonder if side-impact airbags are safe for kids – so far all the real-world crash evidence suggests that they are safe for children.  As of 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has investigated over 1,500 cases where SABs have deployed in crashes. Sixty of the cases have involved children (ages 13 and under). NHTSA crash investigators found no moderate or serious injuries to these children as a result of SAB deployments. NHTSA continues to closely monitor real-world SAB deployments involving both children and adults.

3. Adequate trunk space

Cargo in the passenger area just isn’t safe.  Things (objects, people, etc) become very heavy in a crash – they will weight their usual weight TIMES the speed of the crash.  For example, a 10 lb baby in a 30mph crash will weigh approximately 300 lb!  Unrestrained people and objects will fly around in a crash – becoming missiles that can injure the other people in the car.  Make sure you have enough trunk space so that cargo stays out of the passenger area.  If buying a vehicle with a 3rd row, it is ideal to keep the third row up, allowing it to serve as a barrier between the cargo and the passengers in the 2nd row.

Two separate government agencies offer crash test ratings for new and older vehicles – NHTSA and IIHS.  Both try to determine a vehicle’s crash worthiness using multiple parameters.  The two agencies perform different crash tests, which may explain some of the discrepancies between their findings for the same vehicle.  

IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Alisa Baer, MD – (Last update 05/10)
One Response to “Tips for Buying a Safe Vehicle”
  1. I have enjoyed reading your post. It is well written. It looks like you spend a large amount of time and effort in writing the blog. I am appreciating your effort.

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