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Choosing a Safe Car: Guide to Vehicle Safety Ratings and Recalls

When buying a vehicle, safety ratings and reliability should always be a consideration. A safe car has passed a battery of tests and has a positive safety record.

New vehicles tend to have the most sophisticated safety features, but used cars can be just as safe. Whether you are looking at a used or new car, there are two primary considerations to help you choose a safe and reliable vehicle:

  • Crash test ratings and safety ratings
  • The vehicle recall process

Understanding a vehicle's safety ratings and recall process can help you make an informed choice in the buying process. A vehicle's crashworthiness and safety features can protect you and your passengers in a car crash, reducing the risk of serious injury or even death.

Crash Testing and Safety Ratings

Crash tests can help simplify the process of choosing a safe car. Crash tests subject vehicles to simulated collisions. These simulations use dummies weighted like human passengers to determine how well the vehicle protects passengers in various types of accidents.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) conduct car safety tests. These organizations use different testing methods and rating systems to evaluate vehicle safety and crashworthiness:

  • The NHTSA leverages strike testing using walls and sleds with a five-star rating system
  • The IIHS uses side impact and frontal crash testing, and rates safety as poor, marginal, acceptable, or good

The European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) oversees vehicle safety and crash testing for vehicles sold in Europe.

A five-star safety rating is the highest rating given by the NHTSA. A vehicle can earn this top score in any crash category, such as front crash, side crash, or rollover. Look up any vehicle's year, make, and model to find its safety ratings.

In addition to crash tests, the IIHS also performs accident avoidance testing. This includes:

  • Ability to sense pedestrians and how long it takes to come to a complete stop
  • Headlight system evaluation
  • Seat belt reminders (visual and audio)
  • Child seat attachment hardware (also known as LATCH)

The IIHS releases an annual list of the safest cars for that model year. This report names the year's top safety picks for varying size categories (including small cars, midsize SUVs, and large pickups).

Vehicle Safety Defects and Recalls

When choosing a safe car, knowing if a manufacturer has recalled any vehicle equipment for safety defects is essential. To search for recalls, use the NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation or call NHTSA at 1-800-424-9393. You will need the vehicle identification number (VIN) to use this tool.

If a manufacturer has recalled a vehicle, ask the dealer for proof that the defect has been repaired.

Checking for recalls is especially important if you're buying a used car. While sellers and dealerships must make recall repairs on new vehicles, most states don't require them to issue notice or repair defects for used vehicles. Digging into a prospective used vehicle's history is your responsibility.

If you find an open recall for a used vehicle, the manufacturer must cover the recall fix free of charge.

Used vehicles should also have a current safety inspection sticker if your state requires one.

If you purchase either a new or used vehicle with an open recall, repair the recall immediately. If you fail to repair the defect after the manufacturer issued notice and are later injured by the vehicle, you may forfeit your right to file a claim.

Additional Vehicle Safety Features

Checking crash and safety ratings and open recalls should be the top priority when considering a vehicle's safety. There are other vehicle safety features to look for in a vehicle that can give you peace of mind and keep you safer on the roads:

  • Antilock Braking System (ABS) prevents wheel lockup during braking, helping to maintain steering control
  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC) prevents skids and loss of control
  • Forward Collision Warning alerts you of impending collisions
  • Automatic Emergency Braking automatically applies the brakes to reduce the severity of an impact
  • Lane Departure Warning and Lane-Keeping Assist provide steering assistance and alerts if you drift out of your lane
  • Blind Spot Detection provides a warning if something is in an area where your mirrors don't show
  • Rear Cross Traffic Alert provides extra help backing out of parking spaces
  • Adaptive Cruise Control adjusts speed to maintain a safe following distance from the car ahead

Consider your specific safety needs when researching features. For example, drivers with small children may want a vehicle with rear door child locks and Isofix technology for attaching child safety seats to a vehicle's rear seats. Parents of teen drivers may target midsize vehicles, like sedans or small SUVs, that offer more protection.

Resources for Vehicle Safety

Several government agencies and nonprofits provide information and resources on safe driving, vehicle safety, crash testing, and more:

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - Each year, NHTSA crashes vehicles head-on into a wall and bashes them broadside to test their ability to protect their occupants. NHTSA focuses on evaluating vehicle restraints such as airbags and safety belts.
  • The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - The IIHS provides research and evaluation on vehicle crash testing, including an updated automatic braking ratings program.
  • Consumer Reports Car Safety Guide - This annual report rates vehicles regarding overall safety. Its safety score combines crash test results, accident mitigation, and driver comfort.
  • The National Safety Council - The Roadway Safety section of the NSC provides programming and resources on vehicle recalls and safety features.

Vehicle Recall or Safety Defect? Talk to an Attorney

Automotive manufacturers are responsible for producing safe vehicles. Unfortunately, there are times when they fall short and sell vehicles that do not meet safety standards or are later recalled. Sometimes, manufacturers even attempt to hide safety defects.

If you have been injured by a vehicle defect or involved in an accident with a recalled vehicle, consider talking to an attorney in your area.

Defective vehicle claims are complex and you may need help providing liability. A motor vehicle defects attorney with expertise in vehicle recalls can help determine if you should file a claim.

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