How to Choose a Safe Vehicle

While a few of us prize speed, handling, and the ability to scare our passengers in our vehicle purchases, let’s be honest: most people choose a vehicle based on mundane factors like utility, cost, efficiency, and above all, safety. I found such things utterly boring… until my wife became pregnant. That changed everything. Suddenly, I cared more about crash ratings than 0-60 times. A man who lusted after McLarens since high school suddenly found himself dumping all his savings into a Honda minivan. Whether choosing a vehicle to shuttle toddlers around town or buying your teenage driver a first car, there are times in life when safety trumps all else.

blake minivan
While it pains me to admit, I love our 2009 Honda Odyssey minivan. There’s much to like, especially the host of safety features. Dang, I look young in that pre-kid pic.

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. I want to spell that out on the side of Kyle Field in 40-foot-tall letters. NO SAFETY FEATURE WILL EVER BE AS IMPORTANT AS A FULLY ENGAGED DRIVER! What I mean is that 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 1970’s 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… so long as we do not use these features to excuse distracted driving.

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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. I, for one, hardly ever answer my phone in the car, and only on speaker phone if I do. If you’re in the College Station or Houston areas, use the Safe2Save app (hotlink). You’ll earn great discounts at restaurants and stores while your phone is in a “safe” mode, leaving you to focus completely on driving. And what about the mother of all distractions, young children fighting in the back seat (pun intended)? Julie and I just pull over. For real. 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 quite 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 sixteen-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 80’s two-wheel-drive Chevy Blazer. 0-60 took over ten seconds. You had to workto 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 sixteen-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.

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My first set of wheels was one of these, but in a more boring grey. It was basically a road-going couch with vinyl seats that stuck to your skin on hot days. I never street-raced because I already knew I’d never win.

Immutable safety rule #2: mass wins in a collision. You could have the safest 2-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. It’s that massive change in velocity that kills you (imagine your brain inside that ping-pong ball!). 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!) A mid-size or full-size sedan, SUV, or minivan all provide reasonable mass to protect you in a collision with anything short of a semi. Additionally, these mid-to-full-size vehicles typically offer larger crumple zones than their smaller siblings. Crumple zones are portions of the vehicle designed to “crunch” under impact so that energy can be absorbed before it makes it into the cabin. Longer hoods and trunks, larger doors, and greater space between doors and occupants means there is more room for energy absorption to occur before you get smacked. So, leave the little roadsters for someone else (me, please!), and get something larger.

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Very effective rear crumple zone on this Volvo S90. Note how the trunk absorbed almost all of the impact, leaving the passenger compartment fully intact. Longer vehicles usually provide larger crumple zones.

Immutable safety rule #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 sixteen, 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 ten-year-old vehicle or a high-mileage four-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 comparisonof 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 ten years difference.

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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. Finally, talk to that car guy or gal you know; the one who’s always driving something interesting and impractical. Chances are good that he or she will have useful suggestions for you. And if you don’t know anyone who fits that description, I’ll be your huckleberry. Just ask.

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 pocket book best.

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Do you really need BMW’s $2300 night vision feature?

That’s enough of what I think. What do you think? What advice do you have for those looking for a safe vehicle? What vehicles would you put at the top of the list, or at the bottom of the list? Please let us know in the comments below. And feel free to subscribe to get new content the moment it’s available.

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. 

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2 thoughts on “How to Choose a Safe Vehicle

Add yours

  1. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. In my high school our homecoming king was killed by a drunk driver in his re-built cool, older, smaller car. To this day I wonder if he had been driving a newer car with airbags, would be still be alive? And minivans are awesome! Sliding doors=magic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Correction: *automatic* sliding doors=magic 😉 I still remember the first time I walked out of the grocery store, hands full of bags, pressed that little van-shaped button, and watched the door slide open on it’s own so I could load the groceries with ease. I was sold on the minivan concept from that day forward.

      And on a more serious note, I think many of us can identify with your story. It was truly only by the grace of God that me and some of my friends escaped high school alive. While my car was a snail, I rode with plenty of friends in IROC Cameros and 5-liter Mustangs as their first cars. They made lots of bad decisions behind the wheel. I’m amazed any of us made it. I’m definitely committed to putting my kids in the safest possible vehicles I can till they master the art of defensive driving (or until fully autonomous cars really take over, which can’t be that far away).

      Like

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