Cars get safer every year. It’s all part of the great game of one-upmanship that car companies have to play with each other in order to stay competitive. However, as we learn more and more about vehicle safety, and car crashes, it becomes clear that the title “safest car” is a bit of a red herring. Safest for what: head on collisions? You’d be surprised how seldom those happen. Rolling over? Again, it happens to the cars you’d least expect, and not that often in general these days.
The Safest Cars on the Road
In order to be called one of the “safest cars on the road”, vehicles must score an average of 4.5 across all categories, and not less than 4 in any one category (out of a maximum possible score of 5 stars). You might be surprised at who makes the list:
- Ford Fiesta (small hatch)
- Honda Civic (small sedan)
- Subaru Forester (small SUV)
- Hyundai Sonata (family sedan)
- Volvo XC60 (mid-sized crossover)
- Buick LaCrosse (large sedan)
- BMW 5-Series (luxury sedan)
- Toyota Sienna (minivan)
- Jeep Grand Cherokee (SUV)
- Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen (station wagon)
So Small Cars are Safer?
You might be looking at that list and thinking, “I thought small cars crush like tin cans?” That might have been true in the past, but the latest safety features that have been added to even budget small cars mean that they are often as safe, or safer, than their hulking SUV counterparts.
If you slam into a Hummer at 80mph, you’ll probably be better off in an SUV, but over all accidents averaged out, you’re safer in a small hatch than in most American SUVs. The reason for this is that crumple zones are made out of the same materials, and are generally the same size, regardless of how small or large the vehicle is. The same can be said of seat belts, air bags, stability control and brakes.
SUVs used to get a bad rap for tipping over easily, but these days their low centers of gravity and advanced stability control means that this is very unlikely in even the tallest SUVs. Where you have a high risk of rollover is in pickups with canopies, or small, lightweight cars with short wheel-bases.
Modern Safety Vs Classic Detroit Steel
Here’s one of my favorite videos involving cars and destruction. It’s a crash test video of a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu hitting a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air, in what is called a “frontal offset” crash. What the video doesn’t explain is that this is one of the most common types of crashes, and happens far more often than full head-on collisions.
Safety wasn’t as nearly as big a concern in 1959, but the Bel Air was considered to be “rock solid”. Observe how its “rock solidness” is smashed into metal paste, along with the crash test dummy. The driver of the Malibu would have suffered bumps and bruises, and maybe a broken foot, according to the video commentator.
Plus years of psychological trauma after seeing the Bel Air driver smeared across his windshield.
What Are the Criteria for Car Safety?
A car’s safety rating is determined by something called its NCAP (New Car Assessment Program), administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA). Vehicles are assessed across a wide range of factors, and more are added to the list on a regular basis as we learn more about what causes fatalities in accidents.
A detailed list of the criteria used to assess vehicle safety can be found on the NHTSA website, but in general cars are looked at according to the following aspects:
- Fuel Economy
- Child Passenger Safety
- Disabled Drivers and Passengers (if applicable)
- Electronic Stability Control
- Other Safety Equipment
Cars are first inspected, and then put through a series of crash tests like the one above to establish what risks passengers face in various types of accidents.
The types of accidents that are examined are:
- Overall (general unspecified damage)
- Frontal crash
- Side crash
Safety in the Future
As we’ve seen throughout this article, vehicle safety improves every year. So much so that the NHTSA continually updates its safety criteria almost every other year. So what kind of safety features can we expect on the cars we’ll be driving in 2020? We’ve already seen prototypes for things like self-driving cars that have been developed, tested and even driven on public roads – perhaps this is a taste of things to come?
As the famous petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson said, “if you want to see what sort of toys will be fitted to the average family sedan in ten years’ time, there is only one place to look”. He means the Mercedes S-Class. It had the first electronic anti-lock brakes. It had the first air bags, the first three-point seat belts and satellite navigation.
The latest ones even have a radar-guided cruise control system that will automatically stop the car if there is a hazard. The braking system is so clever that all you do is touch the brake, and the car works out how much braking power is needed, and applies it.
There are still a few kinks to work out, however, as we can see from this video which shows what happened when Mercedes Benz wanted to demonstrate this system to the press. Before you get too excited though, Clarkson revealed in this clip that the below mishap only happened because they forgot to tell the test driver that the system was turned off. Oops.