If safety isn't your top priority when buying a new car, it should be.
Given that so much of your time is spent in a car, you want to be as well protected as possible should the accidental occur.
The good news is that modern cars offer more safety features than ever. Understanding what's available and how it assists you, the driver, is important.
There are two types of safety features: crash-avoidance systems, which help avoid an accident in the first place, and crash-protection systems, which help prevent injury in the event of a crash.
The more costly the car, the more likely the vehicle has these systems. But you'll be surprised at how many affordable vehicles offer these features either as standard equipment or as options.
Here's what to look for:
Accidents can be costly, so being able to avoid one is invaluable. Here are the features that can help prevent one
-- Anti-lock brakes (ABS): Slamming on the brakes can cause your wheels to lock up. ABS prevents this by modulating brake pressure on a wheel that's slipping during an emergency stop. According to the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 99 per cent of all cars now have ABS as standard equipment.
-- Traction control (TC): Uses ABS sensors to detect wheel spin while accelerating. If one tire is spinning faster than the others, TC can apply braking to that wheel or, in some vehicles, reduce engine power until traction is regained.
-- Electronic stability control (ESC): Thirty-three per cent of passenger-vehicle fatalities occur in rollovers, killing more than 10,000 people a year, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). ESC assists in maintaining vehicle control in corners by selectively braking one or more wheels to keep the car on its intended path. For 2012, the NHTSA requires ESC on all passenger cars and trucks.
-- Rollover mitigation: Commonly found on sport-utility vehicles, rollover mitigation uses ESC to prevent a rollover. If that doesn't work and the vehicle starts to roll over, the system activates the vehicle's side-curtain airbags.
-- Brake assist (BA): During a panic stop, if the car's safety systems sense you're not braking hard enough, this system automatically takes over to ensure shorter stops.
-- Backup camera: This camera activates when the vehicle is shifted into reverse. The image is displayed in the rear-view mirror or on the instrument panel display screen. It's especially useful in SUVs and pickup trucks, not to mention cars with narrow back windows. Some Nissan and Infiniti models offer an "Around-View Camera," which uses multiple cameras to give you a 360-degree view while parking. Both Rolls-Royce and the Hyundai Equus offer a front-view camera to ensure a good view of oncoming traffic while pulling out from your walled estate.
-- Blind-spot monitoring: Exterior-mounted sensors detect vehicles that are present in your vehicle's blind spot and alert you with a warning light mounted in your car's side mirrors.
-- Lane-departure warning: Vehicle sensors monitor the road's lane markings and audibly alert you if you cross them without using your turn signal.
-- Forward collision warning: Sensors mounted in the front of the car flash a light and sound an alarm if you're approaching a vehicle or object in front of you too quickly.
-- Tire-pressure monitoring: Federal law dictates that all cars and trucks have tire-pressure monitors as standard equipment. There are two kinds of systems -- direct and indirect. Both alert the driver if a tire has low pressure.
Direct systems have a sensor in each wheel to measure its exact pressure, which is shown somewhere on the car's instrument panel. An indirect system uses the car's ABS sensors to detect if one tire is spinning slower than the others, usually a sign of low tire pressure. But it doesn't display which tire is low, nor can it tell the driver if all four tires are losing pressure due to cold weather, for example.
-- Driver-alert systems: Luxury cars, including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and others, offer optional driver-alert systems, which track your driving using the car's different safety systems. If the car concludes you're getting drowsy -- for example, if you're not staying in your lane -- it alerts you with an audible alarm and dashboard light. On some systems, the driver's seat or steering wheel may vibrate.
-- Adaptive cruise control: An automated cruise control that uses sensors to maintain a set following distance from the vehicle in front of you.
Since 1996, the U.S. government has required all vehicles to be equipped with front-seat airbags. Even so, manufacturers are taking additional steps to ensure passenger safety.
-- Side-curtain airbags: Manufacturers have installed side airbags to protect the torso, but increasingly they're offering side-curtain airbags to protect your head and prevent ejection during a crash.
-- Inflatable rear seatbelts: In the event of a crash, these padded belts inflate, diffusing crash pressure across five times more of the occupant's torso than a traditional belt. The belt also helps maintain proper seating position. The belts are compatible with infant and children car and booster seats and are offered on some Ford models.
-- Active head restraints: These headrests move up and forward during a crash to help prevent whiplash.
-- Seat-belt pretensioner: Tightens seatbelts during a collision to maintain passenger safety.
Beyond the options list
During a test drive, there are things you can do to ensure the car or truck you buy is safe, regardless of how many safety features the vehicle has.
Make sure the vehicle offers a comfortable driving position that allows you to reach all controls without sitting too close to the vehicle's steering-wheel-mounted airbag. Take a look around to make sure you can clearly see out of the vehicle.
If, for instance, the car's high rear deck lid and small window make it difficult to see, and you're set on buying the car or truck, opt for safety options such as a rear-view camera and blind-spot detection to help overcome these flaws.
-- The Virginian-Pilot