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How To Find The Safest Car

When you’re shopping for a new or used car, safety is likely a top concern. No car is completely safe in an accident, but some cars are better than others in helping to avoid accidents and protecting occupants in case of them. Here are tips for finding the safest car for you and your family.

Compare safety features

There are two main types of safety features: those to help you avoid accidents and those to help protect you in the event of one. Important safety features that can help you avoid accidents are:

Electronic stability control (ESC). This newer technology helps prevent accidents by giving drivers more control of their vehicle during sudden maneuvers and extreme steering. It senses when a vehicle starts spinning out of control and applies brake pressure to one or more wheels to turn the vehicle in the proper direction.

ESC is one of the best safety features for preventing accidents. According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it is estimated that ESC reduces singe-vehicle crashes of passenger vehicles by 34% and single-vehicle crashes of SUVs by 59%. The study also said that ESC can prevent 71% of passenger car rollovers and 84% of SUV rollovers. Efforts are underway to make car manufacturers start equipping vehicles with ESC beginning with 2009 models and to have it standard on all vehicles by 2012 models.

Anti-lock brakes. These help prevent a vehicle’s wheels from locking during “panic” breaking. This allows the driver to maintain more steering control as the vehicle slows, which is a key factor in avoiding a crash. Anti-lock brakes can also help a vehicle stop in a shorter distance, especially on wet or slippery roads.

The right way to use anti-lock brakes is “stomp and steer” — press the brake pedal hard and steer the car to safety. Don’t pump anti-lock brakes, as they pump themselves automatically to prevent wheel lockup.

• Tire pressure monitoring system. This dashboard warning light alerts the driver when a tire is significantly underinflated. Underinflated tires are a leading cause of tire failure.

• Daytime running lights. These help other motorists see your vehicle.

The other main types of safety features are those to help protect occupants in case of a crash. They include:

Air bags. Air bags are excellent safety devices, and they are improving. Some now adjust how fast they inflate based on factors like the passenger’s weight and severity of the impact. Also extremely valuable are side-impact air bags, which can significantly reduce head and/or chest injuries. They provide a cushion between the driver and window and other hard objects in the car, and they also help protect in the event of a rollover crash. Side-impact air bags are very effective — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that if all vehicles had them, 700-1000 lives would be saved every year in side-impact crashes.

There are different kinds of side-impact air bags (SABs). Chest SABs are in the side of the seat or the door and help prevent injuries to the chest in side-impact crashes. Head SABs are usually in the portion of the roof above the side windows and help protect an occupant’s head in a side-impact crash. There are also head/chest combination SABs, which are designed to help protect a person’s head and chest in a crash. They are usually mounted in the side of the seat but are typically larger than chest SABs. Be aware of the different air bag systems available when looking at cars to buy.

• Seat belt pretensioners. Seat belts are your best protection in a crash, and they are getting even better. Those with a pretensioner almost instantly make the belt snug in a collision, which lowers the risk of injury to your head and chest. Even in cars with seat belt pretensioners, you still need to make sure your seat belt fits as snugly as possible.

Consider the car’s weight

In an accident, heavy cars offer more protection than light cars equipped with the same safety features.

Test drive

When you test drive a new or used car before buying it, make sure head restraints and roof and window designs don’t block your view. Also make sure there are no control knobs sticking out of the dashboard that would interfere with you in case of an emergency.

Review crash tests

Looking at crash test information is an easy way to gain a tremendous amount of safety information about cars you are considering buying. How well a car protects you in a crash depends on several factors, including the car’s size, bumpers and interior padding. An excellent source for crash test results is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1-800-424-9393 or on the web at They offer ratings based on several factors, including how well drivers and passengers are protected in frontal crashes, side crashes and rollovers. They also list detailed information about safety features cars offer, including whether or not they have electronic stability control and the types of air bags they have. Over 200 makes and models of passenger vehicles, SUVs, light trucks and vans are listed. New ratings come out every year.

The best safety feature of any car is a good driver. But when you are ready to buy, comparing safety features, test driving the car to make sure it’s a good fit for you, and evaluating crash results can help you find the car that will protect you and your family the best.

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