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Family Car Safety Top 10

By Scott Memmer

Photos courtesy of American Honda Motor Company Inc., DaimlerChrysler AG, Volkswagen of America Inc., and Ford Motor Company

About half the editors here at have families. As a result, a number of us own family cars.

Not only do we own family haulers, but, contrary to popular opinion, we mainly test drive cars driven by the general population, not Formula One racers, or Bimmers, or Jags.

For example, here's a partial list of cars we've test driven in the last month: Pontiac Aztek, Saturn SC2, Olds Aurora, Kia Spectra, BMW 330i, Toyota Echo and Chevy S-10 pickup, to name a few.

Not exactly your laundry list of exotic vehicles, is it?

Now it's true that we get our hands on high-performance cars from time to time — we won't deny it, that's what keeps the stupid grins on our faces — still, most of the cars we see on a daily basis are your average workaday conveyances, the same kind of vehicle you'd find in your own driveway at night.

There's a reason for this, and it's by design. Our philosophy at is to advocate for the average consumer, to be both sounding board and automotive conscience, and we can't do that if we're driving Porsches every day. In this matrix, the family car plays an essential role.

It occurred to us that our readers might want to know which safety features the editorial staff at values most when shopping for a new or used family car. We conducted an informal poll (very informal: sitting out on the patio, burgers and fries — "Hey, Karl, what're your three favorite safety features?" "Damn, I spilled mustard on my shirt!") and tabulated the results.

Here then is our top 10 list of the most coveted safety features when shopping for a new or used family car.

1. High crash-test scores. Most of our editors felt this was the top consideration when shopping for a family vehicle. Keeping the occupants safe ranked high on everyone's list. Specifically, look for a four- or five-star crash-test rating (for both front and side impact) from NHTSA, or a minimum of a "good" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Also, consider curbweight. A heavier vehicle will cost you more money in fuel, but protect you and your family in the event of a collision. Don't get us wrong. We're not advocating a vehicular survival of the fittest scenario. But simple physics dictates that more mass wins.

2. Front airbags. Even though we've written scurrilous articles about airbags in the past, we still like 'em overall. What we don't like is the way they were foisted upon an unsuspecting American public without sufficient testing to protect children and small-stature adults. So buy a car with front airbags. A number of higher-end cars also offer ceiling-mounted head protection airbags, a great feature if they fit into your price range. Which leads to our next point.

3. Airbag shut-off switch. The good news: a number of vehicles (especially pickup trucks) now come with an airbag shutoff switch for the front passenger seat. If you're considering buying a pickup truck or a two-seat sports car, make sure it has a passenger side shutoff switch (not all do). And remember, never place a small child in the front seat near an active airbag, whether in a child safety seat or not.

4. Antilock Braking System (ABS). Although this is another technology we squabble about from time to time, we agree that it's generally a good thing for a family car. ABS works to provide maximum steering potential during a braking action, thereby insuring the best ability to steer out of trouble. As our executive editor Karl Brauer says, he wants it "not because it always stops cars in less distance than non-ABS — it doesn't! — but because you can stab the brakes and steer around a potential crash at the same time." One proviso: we recommend that you educate yourself about the "feel" of ABS before encountering a real-life situation. For instance, go to a wet parking lot after the stores have closed and slam on the brakes several times. Better yet, attend driving school and get some professional instruction.

5. ALR/ELR seatbelts. These acronyms stand for Automatic Locking Retractor and Emergency Locking Retractor seatbelts, and denote a safer, more responsive seatbelt design that generally offers superior anchoring for child safety seats. Because most owners of family cars will want the capability of installing a child safety seat, we recommend that you seek out these designs first. Also, be sure to install your own car seat as a test (ignore that salesperson breathing down your neck), since even some ALR/ELR seatbelts leave unwanted slack after cinching down a child safety seat.

6. Child seat-tether anchors. If you have young children, consider buying a newer car that comes equipped with standard child safety seat-tether anchors. These began appearing in many 2000 models and already come on more than 50 percent of the new cars being manufactured. See our link below for a full article on this feature.

7. Consider not buying an SUV. No, we don't consider sport-utility vehicles the anti-Christ — so hold those cards and e-mails — but conclusive evidence shows that they're more prone to rollover than other family vehicles. Think about a sedan, minivan or station wagon instead. Not only are they safer, they're generally a lot cheaper to buy and operate. If you do buy an SUV, pay special attention to tire pressure readings and track width. An inside tip: the Dodge Durango is considered one of the more stable SUVs on the market.

8. Good tires. This one might seem a little obvious, but make sure you've got a good set of tires on the car. Remember, the tires are literally "where the rubber meets the road" and they are critical in terms of driving safety. If you're buying a used vehicle and the tires are worn, ask the seller to replace them or reduce the price by a couple hundred bucks so you can throw some good rubber on the car.

9. Reliability. "How reliable will the car be?" our editor-in-chief asks. "You don't want to have your spouse and children stranded unnecessarily." We've generally found Honda, Nissan and Toyota vehicles to have more reliable powertrains over the long haul (one of the reasons these cars hold resale value better in the used market). Consider a car with a good reliability record.

10. Grab bag. A number of editors had other excellent suggestions about a variety of safety features to look for. These included:
  • Good visibility. Once the kids get in the car, can you see out the back window? Clear sightlines are critical for safe driving.
  • Impact-absorbing interior materials. Other than their cosmetic appeal, do the materials along the dash and door panels offer cushioning in the event of an accident?
  • Cargo netting. Especially important in a station wagon or other vehicles with an open cargo area in the rear. Prevents a VCR or heavy luggage from making a visitation upside your head during a sudden stop.
  • Auto-dimming rearview mirrors. Built-in sensors dim the mirrors automatically. A great feature for night driving.
  • Integrated child booster seats. Our Canadian editor specifically mentioned the Volvo system as one to check out.
  • Crash-resistant door pillars. Leading-edge companies such as BMW and Saab have introduced door pillars that deflect the force of a side impact away from the driver's head and torso, where more life-threatening injuries occur, and toward the legs. See the Saab story link below for more detail.
  • Integrated passenger safety cage. Manufacturers such as Volvo and Mazda are leading the way with safety cages that envelope the occupants in steel, in much the same way a racecar safety cage protects a driver in a high-speed impact. The Mazda MPV minivan uses the Mazda Advanced Impact Distribution and Absorption System with front and rear crumple zones, together with a Triple-H steel cage to protect the passengers. Volvo vehicles offer a similar impact-absorbing structure.
One More Thing
We can't conclude this article without mentioning a mini-debate among our editorial staffers concerning side-impact airbags. Our editor-in-chief is dead-set against installing them in the rear, citing their danger to children and small-stature adults. He also opposes them in the front, as no child should ever be placed near an active airbag. Other editors feel they are OK in the front only if seat-mounted (as opposed to door-mounted), since their force of deployment in this instance would be directed upward and not directly at the occupant. A possible compromise: some newer vehicles with side-impact airbags now offer a sensing device that detects the lighter weight of a child and therefore prevents the airbag from deploying.

We've placed links to a number of related stories below.

NHTSA's Crash-Test Scores: Saving Lives and Educating Consumers
Airbag Safety
Fixing Antilock Brakes
Saab's Real-Life Crash Testing Pays Off
The Triangle Defense

--First published on November 16, 2000

Copyright 2001 by Edmunds.Com, Inc. All rights reserved.

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