By Shari Prymak
Though many consumers consider safety to be a top consideration factor when purchasing a new vehicle, it is surprising to see how little they truly understand vehicle safety. When asked to imagine the safest car, a typical person will probably picture an enormous thing with four-wheel drive, complete with a million airbags and safety gizmos. Is this a false analogy conjured up by the marketing department of car manufacturers or is there merit to this mentality? Well, let’s first get into the basics of car safety, and then we’ll cover what you should look for in a safe car.
The first form of car safety to understand is what is known as passive safety, that is, safety features which work without driver input. These include airbags, vehicle structural integrity and design, and seat belts, all of which help protect vehicle occupants in the case of an accident. Fortunately, nearly every car built today is well covered in this area. Even a lowly Chevrolet comes with 10 airbags.
The second form of car safety is known as active safety, that is, safety features which help prevent an accident in the first place. Active safety features include anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control, and other such variants of these systems. It also includes driver input and a car’s dynamic ability, that is, its cornering, braking, and steering ability which helps aid in collision evasiveness. Generally speaking, the newer and more expensive the car, the more active safety features it will carry.
While both active and passive safety features have substantially improved the safety of vehicles over the years, and are indeed important consideration factors, they both come secondary to driver safety, which is by far the most important form of car safety. Driver safety refers to a driver’s skill level, experience, judgment, training, and natural ability to drive. While a full compliment of passive and active safety features is important, a car is only as safe as the person driving it. Indeed, the vast majority of car accidents are caused by driver error, not vehicle design error, which demonstrates that a driver’s knowledge, skill, expertise, and judgment are vital to creating a safe driving environment. It is, therefore, highly advisable that all drivers consider taking lessons in one of the many advanced driving schools available which teach accident avoidance, driving maneuvers, vehicle dynamics, car control, and proper driving position.
Keeping active, passive, and driver safety in mind, it is important to buy a vehicle that not only has great safety features, but will also allow for maximum driver safety. A buyer should then look for a car that not only has several air bags, traction/stability control, ABS, and other variants of this nature, but one that also has good cornering, braking, and steering capability to allow for maximum driver control.
Driver safety and control will also be increased by considering features that maximize driver involvement and minimize distraction. An excellent way to increase driver involvement is to buy a car with a manual transmission. A manual transmission gives the driver maximum control over the car and creates a more engaging driving experience. Furthermore, it helps force the driver to focus on driving and to ignore distractions like texting, Bluetooth, MP3s or DVD players.
As for whether to go with a four-wheel drive or two-wheel drive car to maximize safety, four-wheel drive is great, but in most cases, especially for city driving, unnecessary. The type of tires equipped to the car is far more important than the car’s drivetrain layout. Use high quality summer tires for the warm months and high quality winter tires for the cold months, and you will be fine, regardless of whether you go front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, or four wheel drive. In ice cold winter storms, I’ve seen large 4X4 SUVs stuck on the side of the road while I blasted by in my small, rear-wheel drive 2-seater equipped with nothing but four skinny winter tires!
Consider the factors of active, passive, and driver safety when shopping for a car. Pick a car with proven safety features and one that will also maximize driver control and involvement. Finally, register for an advanced driving school: it will teach you a lot more than how to parallel park, you will learn a few things that will improve your skills and confidence as a driver. Buying a safe car is only the beginning.