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How to buy the safest cars


Crashed bumperYour car safety research should begin with crash test ratings, but it shouldn’t end there. When shopping for a new car, you’ll also want to research high-tech crash-prevention features and other factors, such as vehicle size and insurance claims history. We’ll explain why these aspects are important and where to find information on them. You’ll also learn what to look for when studying vehicle safety ratings.

Crash test ratings by car safety research groups

A good place to begin your research is by checking crash test results. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) each year designates new vehicles that pass a series of crash tests as a “Top Safety Pick+” or “Top Safety Pick.” The IIH tests cars on how well they protect people in front, side, rollover and rear crashes.

All of the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ winning cars had to receive "good" ratings on five crashworthiness requirements. They also had to  have at least an "advanced" rating on their front crash prevention system with automatic   braking. The Top Safety Picks had front crash prevention systems, but did not have automatic braking.

Carroll Lachnit, consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, says the IIHS tests consider not just how well a vehicle performs in a crash -- but also how well the car prevents you from crashing in the first place.

"Carmakers are beginning to put things in automobiles that can prevent crashes or at least mitigate a crash," Lachnit says.

Along with the IIHS, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does its own ratings of the safest vehicles, and the results can be found at SafeCar.gov. The tests conducted by the two agencies complement each other, says Russ Rader, IIHS spokesman. You should look for vehicles with a four- or five-star safety rating from NHTSA.

"When buying a new or used vehicle, look for those with the best crash test ratings," recommends Rader.

In addition to crash tests, there are two new, must-have safety features to look for when researching a new car purchase. Front crash prevention and adaptive headlights are reducing crashes, based on analysis of insurance losses by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of IIHS.

Front-crash prevention with auto braking

While many key safety features, such as electronic stability control and side air bags, are now standard on vehicles, several new safety systems have a crucial role to play in improving vehicle safety and keeping motorists safer on the road, Rader says.

If you're in the market for a new car, you should look for those that have front crash prevention systems with automatic braking, he says. These systems can detect an impending collision, and automatically apply the brakes to avoid a crash.

While front crash prevention systems with automatic braking remain optional, more vehicle models are expected to soon be equipped with the features as part of a voluntary agreement now being hammered out between the auto manufacturers and the IIHS and NHTSA.

Adaptive headlights

Another important safety feature that has been shown to reduce crashes is adaptive headlights, which pivot and improve visibility around curves, Rader says.

Other crash-avoidance features

Lachnit says other equipment you might want to consider includes lane-departure warning and prevention systems, which warn you when you're moving out of your lane or prevent you from crossing lane markers. She also suggests researching cars that have rear-cross traffic alert systems, which can notify you if you're backing out of a parking space and another vehicle is headed your way. The IIHS also says blind-spot detection is becoming a popular safety feature worth reviewing. You can find crash avoidance features by make and model at the IIHS website.

Size and weight matter

The IIHS safety winners span the spectrum, from the Scion iA mini car -- the sole winner in that category -- to moderately priced and luxury cars and SUVs.

But "bigger, heavier vehicles are always safer than smaller ones," Rader says. "That doesn't mean you have to buy a tank."

However, even small cars with top car safety ratings will never be as safe as larger vehicles, he says.

He recommends shopping for midsize sedans or small SUVs, which weigh about the same and are fairly comparable in terms of safety.

If you have your heart set on a small car -- perhaps because you drive in urban areas and always are hunting for a parking place -- Rader recommends always buying one with a high safety rating.

For mini and small cars, "it's even more important to shop with safety ratings in mind," he says.

Safest cars for teens and seniors

If you're looking for a car for a teen driver, it's essential that the vehicle has electronic stability control, Rader says. That wasn't a standard feature on vehicles until 2012.

For older drivers, along with front crash prevention systems and adaptive headlights, backup cameras may be helpful, Rader says, though you still need to remember to look in your mirrors when you put it in reverse. Backup cameras will be required in all new vehicles by May 2018.

Special tips when researching used car safety

Here are key factors to look for when researching the safety of a used car, based on IIHS data:

  • A “good” rating in front crash tests: Drivers of vehicles rated good in the IIHS test are about 46 percent less likely to die in a serious frontal crash than drivers in poor-rated vehicles.
  • A “good” rating in side tests: Drivers of vehicles with good ratings in the IIHS side barrier test are 70 percent less likely to die in a driver-side crash compared with drivers in vehicles rated poor.
  • Air bags that protect your head:  Studies of real-world crashes indicate that side airbags substantially reduce fatality risk.
  • Strong roof rating: Roof strength ratings show how well you will be protected in a roll-over crash.
  • A “good" rating for seat/head restraints: Vehicles with seat/head restraint combinations rated good by IIHS have 15 percent fewer insurance claims for neck injuries than vehicles with poor ratings.
  • Buy a car with electronic stability control (ESC): This technology is an extension of anti-lock brakes and lowers the risk of a fatal single-vehicle crash by about half and the risk of a fatal rollover by as much as 80 percent. ESC became standard on cars in 2012.
  • Driver deaths by vehicle: If you're in the market for a used vehicle, Lachnit recommends also checking the number of driver deaths by vehicle make and model, which is available from the IIHS.

High insurance losses typically mean higher car insurance rates

The IIHS additionally has information on insurance losses by vehicle make and model. Generally, more losses equate to more expensive auto insurance premiums.

Those IIHS ratings look at the collision, property damage liability, comprehensive, personal injury protection (PIP), medical payment and bodily injury liability claims for various vehicle models. The most recent ratings are for 2012-2014 vehicles. However, these findings are a good indicator of how newer models will perform unless the car has been dramatically redesigned.

In terms of safety, PIP claim numbers are a good indicator of how well cars protect occupants in real-world crashes, says Rader. Cars with fewer PIP claims protect you and your passengers better than those with a high PIP claim rate.

Car safety insurance discounts

Depending on your insurer, you might receive a discount if your car is equipped with certain safety features. Geico, for example, offers a discount of up to 25 percent on the medical payments or personal injury portion of your auto insurance if your car comes equipped with driver-side air bags, and a discount of up to 40 percent for full front seat air bags. It also offers up to a 5 percent discount on the collision part of your insurance if your car has anti-lock brakes.

State Farm offers a vehicle safety discount of up to 40 percent, based on the claims record of each vehicle make and model. The company says claim records are reviewed each year and the discount is adjusted accordingly.

So along with checking out price, horsepower and design, be sure to compare vehicle safety records before heading to the automobile showrooms. If you are shopping for a car, find out how to insure a new car before you close the deal. Once you've bought your new ride, you'll need to get car insurance -- start now by finding car insurance companies in your area.

IIHS vehicle safety awards: And the winners are….

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) introduced 48 vehicles that met the criteria to be rated a Top Safety Pick+, while 13 more were chosen as Top Safety Picks.

All of the IIHS Pick+ winning cars had to receive "good" ratings on five crashworthiness requirements, plus have at least an "advanced" rating on their front crash prevention system with automatic braking. The Top Safety Picks had front crash prevention systems, but did not have automatic braking.

Top IIHS Safety Pick+ Vehicles for 2016

MinicarsSmall carsMidsize moderately priced carsMidsize luxury/near luxury carsLarge family carLarge luxury carsSmall SUVsMidsize SUVSMidsize luxury SUVs
Scion iAAcura ILXChrysler 200Audi A3Toyota AvalonAcura RLXFiat 500X (built after July 2015)Honda PilotAcura MDX
Lexus CT 200hHonda Accord/4-dr sedanBMW 2 seriesAudi A6Honda CR-VNissan MuranoAcura RDX
Mazda 3/4-dr hatchback and sedanHonda Accord/2-dr coupeLexus ESHyundai GenesisHyundai TusconAuid Q5
Subaru CrosstrekMazda 6Volvo S60Infiniti Q70 (but not V8 4WD models)Mazda CX-5Lexus NX
Subaru ImprezaNissan MaximaVolvo V60Lexus RCMitsubishi OutlanderVolvo XC60
Subaru WRXSubaru LegacyMercedes-Benz E ClassSubaru ForesterVolvo XC90
Volkswagen Golf/4-dr hatchback and SportWagenSubaru OutbackVolvo S80Toyota RAV4
Volkswagen GTI/4-dr modelsToyota Camry
Toyota Prius v
Volkswagen Jetta
Volkswagen Passat

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