So, what vehicle will provide the greatest safety for those you love? Let’s start with the three immutable truths of automotive safety.
First, and most important, no vehicle safety feature will ever be as important as a fully engaged driver.
I want to shout that from the mountain tops. A driver who is paying complete attention to the task of driving will be more likely to get home safely than one who is not, even if the former is driving a 1970s Ford Pinto and the latter a state-of-the-art Tesla. There is no technology (at least yet) that can fully replace the human driver. And this is where all of those wonderfully advanced safety features actually have a negative consequence: they can deceive us into believing our attention is no longer required. That’s a recipe for tragedy. New technologies like automated braking and lane departure warnings are wonderful … as long as we do not use these features to excuse distracted driving.
So, here’s a simple rule of thumb. No matter what vehicle you buy, the safety of you and your passengers will be primarily determined by your full engagement in the task of driving. Put the cell phone away. If you’re getting a car for a new teenage driver, get one with a glove box and make them put their freaking cell phone in the glove box while they drive! No texting while driving. Ever. And be very careful even talking on a phone while driving as it can be just as distracting.
And what about the mother of all distractions, young children fighting in the back seat? Don’t just threaten to pull over. Do it. Pull into a parking lot and get out of the car and catch your breath. Give them a time out in the car. Don’t resume driving till they quiet down. You’re not being harsh. You’re being safe, and that’s what they need from you above all else when you’re driving.
And while we’re on the topic of good parenting, let me challenge those of you choosing a first vehicle for your 16-year-old. Fast cars are a privilege to earn, not a rite-of-passage for testosterone-filled teens (just to clarify: I’m not talking about speeding – no one has the right to exceed the speed limit). On behalf of all innocent bystanders, please do not give a new driver a V8 Mustang. Give him or her something slow and docile. My first car was an early 1980s two-wheel-drive Chevy Blazer. You had to work to exceed the speed limit in that sloth… which made it perfect for a new driver. You wouldn’t throw a toddler in the deep end to learn how to swim. So, don’t throw your 16-year-old the keys to a sports car. Help your kid learn the rules of the road in something safe. After two or three years without tickets or accidents, then you can talk about something more fun to drive. Until then, leave the fast cars to those who’ve earned the right to drive them.
Immutable safety rule No. 2: Mass wins in a collision. You could have the safest two-door hatchback ever made, but in a collision with a Suburban, you lose. It’s a simple matter of physics. Energy is proportional to mass. Imagine crashing a ping-pong ball into a golf ball. The former will experience a massive change in velocity; the latter barely any. There are occasional exceptions to this rule. A 50’s era American sedan weighs as much as a small aircraft carrier, and yet is not safe in high-speed collisions because it predates shoulder belts, airbags, and unibody construction. Some older SUV’s and trucks are also unsafe in an accident despite their mass due to their increased propensity to roll over and lack of safety features that were more common on sedans at the time. But in general, if two modern cars collide and one is much heavier than the other, it will almost always “win” (not that anyone really wins in a collision).
Immutable safety rule No. 3: newer is better.
Safety features follow a progression. First, luxury brands pioneer a new technology. Whether airbags, antilock brakes or blind spot monitors, they first show up on expensive vehicles. But with time, costs decrease and market pressure increases, and eventually those same features are found in every car from a Ferrari to a Ford. Therefore, the newer the car, the more safety features it is likely to possess.
When my kids turn 16, I’ll buy the newest car I can afford for them, and take the old car for myself since I’m a much more experienced driver (and it doesn’t hurt that I greatly prefer driving older cars!). Likewise, if you have a choice between a low-mileage 10-year-old vehicle or a high-mileage 4-year-old vehicle, the safer bet will probably be the newer vehicle, all other things being equal. For convincing proof, watch this video crash-test comparison of a 1997 hatchback verse a 2017 hatchback, or the gif below of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air (a massively heavy cruiser) disintegrating when hit by a 2009 Chevy Malibu. Newer is definitely safer if it’s more than 10 years difference.
With these timeless rules in hand, how do we now select a vehicle? You’re going to buy the newest mid-to-large vehicle you can afford. But that still leaves a lot of options. How do you choose? In a word: Research! The Internet is your friend when choosing a vehicle. First, look up IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) ratings on all the vehicles you are considering. These industry-wide ratings are based on extensive crash-test data, and can be found at www.iihs.org/iihs/ratings.
Second, read reviews of each vehicle at Consumer Reports, Edmunds.com and any other reputable source you can find. If you’ll be buying a used car, look for reviews about used versions of the cars you’re looking for. While it’s nice to know what MotorTrend thought in 2010 about a new Suburban, if you’re about to buy that now eight-year-old model you’d really like to know what a competent reviewer thinks about well-used Suburbans from that era. That will give you a better picture of how well the vehicle has held up over time.
Last question: What safety options do you really need? Is lane departure or auto-braking actually worth the thousands of dollars some manufacturers charge for these options? That depends. If your budget is sky-high, then it makes sense to spend a bit more for a marginal safety gain. However, if you’re like most of us, your budget is limited. In that case, I recommend you follow the advice above. The newer the vehicle the better, in most cases, even if that means you’re buying a Honda rather than a Mercedes.
Similarly, take a base model full-size sedan over a compact with all the bells and whistles because, again, mass and size usually win. When you’re closing the deal on a new car and the salesman is pressuring you to add another safety option, should you cancel that Disney vacation to do so? I can’t make that decision for you. All the truly essential safety features, such as seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and crunch zones are already required on all new cars. Most even come with backup cameras standard these days. So, we’re really talking about non-essential safety features like extra cameras, automated braking, intelligent cruise control, etc. In my opinion, none of these are worth braking the bank over, but that’s because I’m the guy shouting rule number one from the mountain tops! If you choose to be a fully engaged driver, then none of these are essential (I’m sure I’ll take flak from some on that opinion). But they can be convenient and might even save your butt in a pinch (though they are no guarantee). So, choose what fits your family and your pocketbook best.
Do you really need BMW’s $2,300 night vision feature?
Finally, since this is an article on safety, I better cover my own butt. I am not a lawyer. I am not (currently) an engineer. My opinions are my own and I make no guarantees, expressed or implied, that my advice is true, competent, complete or will save you from bodily harm or death. I’m just a guy who likes cars. That is all.
Blake Jennings is the teaching pastor at Grace Bible Church’s Southwood campus in College Station. He blogs at revsgarage.wordpress.com and founded an organization called OnRamp, which provides vehicles to those in need.