Car Safety: Which Cars are the Safest, & Which Cars are the Least Safe?

When it’s time to buy a new car, what’s the biggest factor in your decision? For most of us, cost is certainly on our mind, but how about fuel efficiency? Reliability? Are you loyal to a particular brand? What will you be using the car for, primarily? If you’re into music, does it have a good stereo? And, let’s be honest, don’t we think about how we’re going to look when others see us driving our new set of wheels? 

But how often do you consider the safety of the vehicle you’re thinking of buying?  

After all, those other factors don’t really matter if an unexpected collision could lead to you or your passengers ending up in the hospital, or worse. It’s easy for many of us to forget that we will be driving our new car for several years, in many different types of weather conditions, over many different kinds of roads, and sharing those roads with thousands of other drivers who may not have our safety at the front of their minds.

Ideally, safety should be the very first consideration when purchasing a new vehicle, with all the other factors starting at a distant second.

Modern automobiles come standard with a variety of safety improvements over their counterparts from even twenty years ago. Plus, optional safety features are available on many cars that would’ve sounded like science fiction to our grandparents, such as rear view cameras, heads-up displays, lane-deviation alerts and blind-spot sensors.  

True, these features are going to cost you more, but in the end, aren’t they worth it?

Because vehicle accidents are often the result of a number of different factors, it’s impossible to perfectly predict how safe you’ll be in one vehicle over another. But there are ways to research a vehicle’s safety, as well as scientific data that can provide general guidelines for prospective car buyers.

Crash Testing Data

Scores from crash testing can be a valuable tool in selecting the safest car.  

In the U.S., two organizations are responsible for the bulk of the crash test data, the government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at nhtsa.gov/ratings, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a trade group, at iihs.org/ratings. Both organizations test between 80 and 150 vehicles each year, and give them an overall rating to make it easier for consumers to compare cars.

However, they don’t use the exact same tests, so it’s best to consult the rating from each organization for the vehicle you’re considering.

The NHTSA performs the following tests on vehicles:

  • Frontal Crash. The vehicle crashes full on into a fixed barrier at 35 mph with two test dummies in place — one in the driver’s seat and the other in the passenger seat, both wearing safety belts.
  • Side Barrier. A moving barrier weighing 3,015 pounds and traveling at 38.5 mph crashes into the stationary vehicle at the side, again with two dummies in the car, simulating an intersection collision, or “T-bone” type crash.
  • Side Pole Crash. Meant to simulate a collision with a telephone pole, the test vehicle is pulled sideways at 20 mph at a 75-degree angle into a 25-centimeter diameter pole. The impact is at the point of the driver’s seating location, and only an adult-size female test dummy is used.
  • Rollover Resistance. The test uses a stationary vehicle and measures its “Static Stability Factor.” Essentially, it determines how “top-heavy” the vehicle is.  A second test measures how likely a vehicle will tip up during a severe avoidance maneuver.

The NHTSA awards an overall “star” rating for each vehicle based on the results of all the tests, with 5 stars being the best in terms of safety. Using the link above, you can search any vehicle by Year, Make and Model.

The IIHS, which is an insurance industry trade group, conducts a different set of tests, as follows:

  • Frontal Crash Tests. The IIHS tests three types of frontal collision, with the vehicle traveling at 40 mph toward a deformable barrier that is about two feet tall. There is a moderate overlap test, which simulates an offset frontal crash between vehicles of the same weight travelling just under 40 mph. There is also a driver-side and passenger side “small overlap” test, where the offset is greater, and this smaller overlap is meant to recreate a collision with an object such as a telephone pole. The vehicle still travels at 40 mph, but this time the barrier is 5 feet tall. In all three tests, a crash test dummy is placed in the driver’s seat and/or passenger seat, depending upon the test.
  • Side Crash Testing. This is very similar in nature to the NHTSA’s side crash test with one notable exception: Two dummies representing either small women or 12-year-old children are placed in the driver seat and in the rear seat behind the driver. Vehicles with side airbags generally perform much better in terms of passenger protection in this test than those without.
  • Roof Strength Test. Noting that thousands of people each year are killed in rollover crashes, the IIHS determines the strength of the roof by pushing an angled metal plate against it at constant pressure. The results are then compared to the weight of the car. A high roof-strength to vehicle weight ratio is considered much safer than a low ratio.
  • Head Restraint and Seat Testing. The vehicle, with dummies in place, is placed on a sled that is moved to simulate a rear-end collision. The effectiveness of the head restraints and the seats are then measured and given a score.
  • Front Crash Prevention. Many vehicles now feature front crash protection technology, which automatically applies the brakes when it senses an oncoming stationary vehicle or, more recently with some cars, a pedestrian. The tests are generally conducted at speeds between 12 and 25 mph. The battery of tests for this system determines how well the vehicle can quickly warn the driver and/or reduce speed in the presence of a stationary vehicle or pedestrian.
  • Headlight Testing. As about half of all fatal crashes occur after dark, IIHS tests how well a vehicle’s headlights light up the space in front of it, both on straightaways and curves.
  • LATCH testing. LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. Vehicles are evaluated on this system of attachment hardware for use with child restraints, focusing on how easily a child restraint can be installed in the vehicle by an adult.

The IIHS gives out results for vehicles it tests in terms of “Good,” “Acceptable,” “Marginal,” or “Poor.” They also give ratings of “Basic,” Advanced,” or “Superior” for the vehicle’s driver-assistance features. 

It’s important to note that all crash tests are simulating a collision with another vehicle of similar weight.  

In the real world, we don’t get to choose the weight of the vehicle we collide with. The IIHS itself says that “A bigger, heavier vehicle provides better crash protection than a smaller, lighter one, assuming no other differences.” 

Bottom line: A subcompact car and a large SUV will not provide the same protection in a crash even if they’ve received the exact same safety score.

Furthermore, not everyone in the car gets the same protection. As mentioned above, the IIHS currently uses a ‘moderate overlap’ test, which simulates a head-on collision wherein the two vehicles strike each other in an offset fashion. This test measures the protection to the driver of the car, not the passengers. The “small overlap” test features a smaller offset, but it is still focused on the driver.  There is no moderate overlap test for the passenger side of the car, only a small overlap test.

Thus, car makers don’t have as much incentive to protect the passengers of a vehicle if they can get a good score for protecting the driver. Also remember that passengers in the rear of the vehicle do not have front-impact airbags to protect them, and dummies are only placed in the rear passenger section for one of the IIHS tests and none of the NHTSA.

In addition, crash rating systems for both the NHTSA and the IIHS are changing every few years. Thus, a car that received a good rating when it was released in 2011 may not get as good a score using the new testing methods. To the same point, vehicles themselves are changing from model year to model year, so a car that received a good safety rating four, three, two or even one year ago may not receive that same safety rating for its most recent model.

Lastly, crash safety ratings don’t tell the whole story.  

You still want to consider optional safety equipment, such as a forward collision warning system, automatic braking, lane-departure warnings and rear-view cameras. Though it adds cost to the purchase, these items are recommended by the NHTSA, IIHS and other groups for maximum safety.

Bottom line: Don’t just look at the overall safety rating for a vehicle. Dig in to the data to see how it performed in each of the tests it was subjected to, as the overall rating may hide some poor results.

Bigger is (Generally) Safer

According to a report published by the IIHS, the death rate for drivers of small cars remains high even as manufacturers strive to make them safer, while nearly half of the 20 safest cars were luxury SUVs.[1] 

Small cars and minicars make up 15 of the 20 models with the highest driver death rates. Because of the physics involved in a car crash, a small car will take the largest amount of force in a collision with a larger, heavier vehicle. Plus, a smaller car simply provides less protection for the driver in a crash.

The least safe car, according to the study, was the 2017 Ford Fiesta, a four-door minicar.

Among the 20 safest car types, according to the IIHS study:

  • 9 were luxury SUVs
  • 2 were midsize luxury cars
  • 4 were minivans or very large SUVs.

Very large SUVs had the lowest overall driver death rate of any vehicle category.

There were some interesting exceptions. The Volkswagen Golf and the all-electric Nissan Leaf had driver death rates of zero and 5 per 10 billion miles, respectively. The overall rate for cars in the same category is 45 driver deaths per 10 billion miles. The researchers explained that, for the Golf, a 2015 redesign greatly improved safety. As for the Nissan Leaf, it is believed that its excellent results are due to when and where electric vehicles are driven.

Be aware that this data only looked into driver fatalities. The fate of passengers was not revealed in these studies.

To see how specific cars did in this study, head over to this IIHS page and select results based on different types of vehicles.

[1] This data was compiled using vehicles from the model years 2014 – 2017, the most recent years for which data is available. The ratings were compiled using a variety of data points and rated based on driver deaths per million registration years, and per 10 billion miles.

Sports Cars Aren’t Built for Safety

Sports cars are built for performance, meaning high speeds and maneuverability. They’re made to be fun to drive and they’re also built for looks. This does not often translate into safety, as safety features, such as a driver assist feature, will often impede what the car is designed to do and make them less entertaining to drive.

Sports cars tend to have a higher share of driver fatalities because of this lack of safety features.  It cannot be ignored, however, that these types of cars tend to be bought and driven by younger, less-experienced drivers.  Younger drivers tend to take more risks in terms of speed and maneuvering anyway, so putting them behind the wheel of a high-powered performance vehicle can often spell disaster. In a previous article, we shared that, according to race car and test driver Andy Pilgrim, most drivers “are not even close to matching the capability of their car, as far as going fast.”

For example, the IIHS reports that the driver death rate was much higher than average for these cars:

  • Ford Mustang GT
  • Chevrolet Corvette

And the data goes on to show that sports cars as a category have double the driver death rate (63 and 50 per 10 billion miles, respectively), compared to the average, (26 per 10 billion miles). Several sports cars made the “Top 20” list of most dangerous cars on this website.

The Safest Cars to Drive

IIHS 2020 Top Safety Pick winner Honda Insight (from www.iihs.org)

Car and Driver Magazine lists the following passenger cars that have received both a five-star rating from NHTSA and won IIHS’s Top Safety Pick+ award for the 2021 model year.

  • Genesis G80, Ultimate Package.
  • Honda Insight.
  • Kia Optima SX and EX Hybrid with Technology package.
  • Lexus ES350 (excluding hybrid model).
  • Lincoln Continental, Reserve or Black Label trim level.
  • Mazda 6, Grand Touring or Signature trim level.
  • Mercedes-Benz E-class, with certain packages.
  • Subaru Impreza, Limited (sedan or hatchback).
  • Subaru Legacy, Limited (2.5i and 3.6R).
  • Subaru WRX, Limited and STI Limited.
  • Toyota Avalon, Limited, Touring and Hybrid Limited.
  • Toyota Camry XLE Hybrid with optional adaptive headlights.

For crossover SUVs and other SUVs, here is Car and Driver’s list of the safest:

  • Acura RDX.
  • Cadillac XT6, Premium Luxury and Sport.
  • Lexus NX300 and NX300h.
  • Mazda CX3 Sport.
  • Mazda CX5 Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, Grand Touring Reserve, and Signature.
  • Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid.
  • Subaru Forester Base, Premium and Sport.

Conclusion – Do Your Car Safety Research

By now, you’ve got an idea of why safety should be a priority in your car-purchasing decision.  

While it’s good to know that two well-respected organizations have been making it their business for decades to rigorously test the safety of cars on the road, that information is only worth something if you put it to use. 

Do your research for the car(s) you’re considering purchasing. How well did they fare not just overall, but on individual tests? Then consult reports by impartial sources, such as Car and Driver Magazine, Edmunds.com, AARP, and Consumer Reports. 

When you finally make your purchase, you can rest easy that you’re in a car that will protect you and your passengers for years to come, plus you can always have a new stereo installed!

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