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The Safest Family Car: 10 Safety Features to Look for When Buying a New Car

Michael S. Morgenstern

By Michael S. Morgenstern

My search for a new family car begins with a bang: the car crash. I assume the worst and work back from there. Federal regulations require all new cars to meet minimum crash test standards. All new cars have seatbelts, airbags and ABS brakes. Traffic deaths are at the lowest rates since the 1950s. So aren’t all cars safe? No, they’re not.

Here are the top 10 safety features I’ll be looking for in our new family car:

1. Crash-worthiness
Crash. Boom. Bang. I look to the ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS crash tests are more demanding than the ones conducted by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Plus, NHTSA’s “star” ratings are vague and can be deceptive. The IIHS uses a four-level scale: “Poor”, “Marginal”, “Acceptable”, and “Good”. I’m looking for a car with “Good” ratings in front, side-impact, offset-frontal, rear-impact and rollovers.

2. Brake Override System
No runaway cars for me. Most of us didn’t know about brake override until Toyota’s unintended acceleration tragedies. The brake override is a fail-safe system: if the accelerator and the brake are depressed at the same time, the brake wins. Brake override systems have been standard in most European cars but not available in many American and Japanese cars. Brake override is also known as Smart Pedal, Smart Stop and Brake Priority Logic.

VIP: Antilock Brake System (ABS), Brake Assist and Electronic Brake Force Distribution are high-tech braking systems but these are not brake override systems. Brake override is a piece of engine management software.

3. Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
Able to be stable. Electronic Stability Control (ESC) may be the single most important advance in auto safety since the seatbelt. ESC helps drivers maintain control during emergency maneuvers by preventing side-skidding and loss of control that can lead to crashes or rollovers. ESC has been found to reduce fatal single-vehicle crash risk by 49 percent and fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk by 20 percent. No wonder vehicles must have ESC to make the “Safest Car” lists by The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Consumer Reports magazine.

4. Airbags
Give me more airbags, not cup holders. Bubble-wrap my family! Front airbags are standard now, so I’m looking for side-impact, side-curtain (also called head-curtain) and knee airbags. Side-impact airbags, which protect the torso, should be seat-mounted, not door-mounted. Some European cars offer side impact airbags for rear seats. Side-curtain airbags drop from above. They protect the head from impact and help prevent ejection in a rollover. Side-curtain airbags should extend to the rear rows. Knee airbags, although not critical, are a plus.

5. Pre-Collision System
Brace for impact. We’re going to crash. Using radar and laser sensors, pre-collision systems detect when a frontal crash is inevitable. The system applies additional braking, tenses seat belts, and raises head restraints. Some systems also close windows and sunroofs and move seatbacks into an upright position. Remember, if your seatback is reclined, your seatbelt will not restrain you in a collision.

6. Automatic Crash Notification System (Telematics)
Help is on the way. If the airbags are deployed and the crash sensors are triggered, the system automatically alerts a call center which can pinpoint your location and make crash details available to emergency personnel. It may also turn on the interior lighting, unlock doors, shut off fuel and switch on hazard lights.

7. Bluetooth Hands-Free System
Look Ma, no hands. A bluetooth hands-free system is an absolute must if you’re going to make/take calls while driving. Some systems can even turn text messages into audio messages. Washington, DC and Maryland state laws ban cell phone use while driving unless you’re using a hands-free device.

8. Back-up Camera
Eyes in the back of my head. I’ll be looking for a car with the best visibility, which means a car with minimal blind spots and large rear windows. That also means I’ll be looking for a car with a back-up camera. Pedestrians, especially small children, are often at risk of being accidentally run over when a car is backing out of driveways or a parking spot. A back-up camera provides additional visibility.

9. Seatbelt Pretensioners and Force Limiters
Tight, but not too tight. Pretensioners instantly retract the seatbelts to take up slack before impact. Force limiters manage the force that the shoulder belt builds up on the chest. After the pretensioners tighten it, force limiters let the seatbelt back out a little.

10. Active Head Restraints
No whiplash, please. During a collision, active head restraints move up and behind your head to prevent neck injuries.

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