The Safest Family Car: a Wholistic Guide

I was 14 when I first made a synaptic connection between car and safety. My 16 year-old brother, two friends, and I were cruising in our father’s 1962 Rambler convertible and playing, ahem, splash the car. It doesn’t rain often in the San Fernando Valley — good thing since, otherwise, the best movie of all time wouldn’t have a plot — but when it does, it rains hard. Los Angeles has a similar attitude towards extreme weather as Seattle. Northwesterners don’t spend money on snowplows and Southern Californians don’t spend money on water drainage. So the puddles in Los Angeles get deep — handy for splash the car, which is played thus: when a car is coming towards you in the adjacent lane, if a puddle is between you and that oncoming car, accelerate to hit the puddle as the cars pass.

With my brother at the wheel, the rest of us urging him on, we were scoring well until this deep game came to an abrupt halt. A car approaches, my brother accelerates towards his goal — a giant puddle in the intersection. Oops! The car ahead of us stops for a left turn, my brother slams on the brakes, our car skids into the rear of the paused car.

My brother was unhurt, as were the two of us in the back seat, but our friend riding shotgun branded the windshield with his forehead. Fortunately, he suffered only a huge bump and wasn’t planning a career in rocket science anyway; fortunately again, no one in the car we rammed was hurt.

Seconds after the crash, I thought about cars and safety for the first time. Not about the wisdom of wearing seat belts. The Rambler didn’t have any (they weren’t mandatory until 1967). Not about avoiding stupid and dangerous games. And not about the self-sacrifice of the Rambler’s front end that cushioned the impact and saved our butts. I was thinking about what we’d tell our father so he wouldn’t kill us.

I won’t tell you what we came up with — you kids will have to conjure your own excuses. And while I’m at it, I’ll point out that, while avoiding death by angry father is a strategy for the ages, other facets of auto safety are more important in the long run — that is, if you want a long run.

Some aspects of auto safety are obvious: attitude of the driver, self-imposed distractions, accident avoidance competence of both the car and the driver, and the car’s crash-worthiness. Some are mutually exclusive: for example, high and heavier is better in a crash while low and lighter is superior in accident avoidance. Some are indirect: the consequences of foreign oil dependence, pollution and global warming.

Driver attitude

Because of the accident, the first thing I learned about auto safety is that it starts with the driver — don’t drive stupid. As there are an infinite ways of being stupid, there are an infinite ways of driving stupid. First the obvious: Playing splash the car is stupid; don’t do that. Don’t drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Don’t succumb to the common types of road rage: tailgating, cutting people off, and making gestures. Even if you don’t cause an accident someone might shoot you.

You might even want to avoid a common but subtle form of road rage. It’s not against the law because it’s protected by the first amendment and because no one regards it as road rage: the display of bumper stickers. It’s a tradition, still usually followed among the friendly but not intimate, to refrain from discussing politics and religion at social occasions. Get on the highway, however, and you’ll be inundated with political and religious messages stamped on bumper stickers. These messages have evolved from simple declarations of support to in-your-face commentary reminiscent of the most zealous of talk-shows. If you’ve ever detested someone, just because of his bumper message, or been flipped off (or worse) over your Stassen for President sticker, you’ve experienced bumper-sticker road rage.

Cell phones and other distractions

I don’t care what people do in their cars, as long as they don’t scare the horses and as long as they’re not driving. The research is coming in and it’s telling us that a cell-phone totin’ SUV driver is more dangerous than a gun-totin’ crack addict. Cell phone use is distracting and as or more dangerous than driving under the influence.

While not at the level of cell phone use, also distracting is sipping lattes, munching baby-backed ribs, adjusting your radio, listening to the wrong beat, and (okay, I’m guessing) playing Quidditch.

Driver’s skill

Driver’s skill? You mean like figuring out how the radio buttons work? If that were the case, the license to operate a motor vehicle would be issued to only 10-year-old boys. Real driver skill is facility with brakes (anti-lock and conventional), gears, and steering, on wet, frozen, and dry roads. It’s adapting to the different handling characteristics of front wheel, rear wheel, and four-wheel drive trains. If you haven’t been trained as a racer or professional truck driver, your driving skill is less than you think.

Driver’s awareness

In a scene from the movie, Grand Canyon, a father is teaching his 16-year-old son to drive. Son is at the wheel, attempting to negotiate a successful left turn in heavy traffic. Father is barking instructions while Son is waiting for that magic confluence where the light turns red, no one is running the red light, no one is turning right from the other way into his intended lane, and cross traffic hasn’t overcome inertia. But Son waits a millisecond too long and the cross traffic almost bags them.

When they pull off the road to calm their nerves, Father explains, “Making a left turn in L.A. is one of the harder things you’ll learn in life.” Now every urban area is Los Angeles. Since most of us are not race-car drivers, all most of us have going for us is awareness — what used to be called “defensive driving” (before that term became a hustle for DUI diversion schools). Staying aware of all that is happening in traffic can be overwhelming but (as I spelled out a few paragraphs above), members of our species love a challenge so much, even if our lives are at risk, we choose to take on numerous handicaps of distraction. I was never that brave. Most of my adult life, I drove various equivalents of skateboards with sheetmetal; I’m sure the only reason I survived was the knowledge that if I was in a major accident I was dead.

Car’s skill

What’s the easiest way to make a good handling and braking car? Start with a low center of gravity and light weight. Heavier cars can be made to handle well, for example, a 700 series BMW or a NASCAR machine, but the heavier car will need more sophisticated engineering, more horsepower, and more expensive tires. (That additional 30 thou goes for more than just extra sheet metal and leather seats.) Cars with a high center of gravity cannot be made to handle well except relative to each other. A BMW or a Honda Accord is going to have far more “car skill” than a Lincoln Navigator or a Jeep.

You don’t have to buy a new car to get better car skill. You can improve the only parts that touch the ground, the tires. Their quality and remaining tread depth can make a dramatic difference in handling and braking, especially on wet pavement. A recent issue of Consumer Reports discusses how quickly tires lose their grip when they’re worn to half their tread. I’ve found Tire Rack to be a reliable source of tire reviews and owner surveys.

Crash protection

Since less than one percent of SUV owners ever go off-road, and since mini-vans hold more passengers, the only explanation for the popularity of SUVs is that you look studly driving them or that they’re safer. If looking studly is your game, you’d be more convincing on a Harley. That leaves being safer. Are they? No, thanks to their knack for rolling over in accidents. According to High and Mighty: SUVs—The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way, the only circumstances in which you’re safer in an SUV is when you’re getting rammed by a compact such as a Toyota Corolla or other 2600-pound car. Also, you’ll come out better in a head-on collision, but that’s not because you’re in a SUV, it’s because you’re in a much heavier vehicle. You’d be even safer in a 3500 pound car or in a mini-van than in that SUV.

Weapons of mass destruction, finally found

Why aren’t these massive hunks of metal safer? Because they’re the auto equivalents of the neutron bomb: SUVs are essentially trucks, engineered for self-preservation rather than to coddle flesh. If your Chevrolet Impala womps into a tree it will attempt to protect its occupants like a politician protects its campaign donators: the Impala’s front end will collapse to cushion you and your loved ones from impact. If your SUV womps into a tree, it will invoke its me first credo: the sturdy frame will withstand collapse and you and your passengers will take the impact. Bonus points are rewarded in that, while SUVs don’t protect you better, they’re 80 percent more lethal when they smack into cars having the audacity to share the road with them. While one reason for this is that SUVs typically weigh more than the cars they crash into, a second reason is that because SUVs ride so much higher, the car and SUV bumpers are mismatched. One of the points the author of High and Mighty makes is that, when these expensive SUVs get old, they’ll be snapped up by the 16 to 25 year-old male crowd. Given that age-and-gender’s propensity to drive the way I did at that age, we will finally find those elusive weapons of mass destruction: young males driving SUVs. (On the other hand.)

While their proclivity to roll over in a crash is being reduced in new models, the uncommonly wide, four-ton Hummers aside, they still don’t come close to passenger cars or even mini-vans in rollover resistance. The good news for new auto shoppers is the coming of age of Electronic Stability Control (ESC) systems, which reduce drivers’ chances of losing control of their vehicle. ESC systems do not prevent rollovers but they reduce the chances of losing control that result in rollovers. The bad news is that only six percent of car and SUV buyers are selecting autos with ECS systems.

On to more controversial themes.

Safety and gas mileage

If you believe there is no relationship between our dependence on Mideast oil and the two Gulf wars then you’ll want to skip the rest of this article in favor of more quality time between your head and that stuff found in large quantities at the beach (besides water and beer cans).

Whether in a war on foreign soil or from a terrorist incident in the U.S., our dependence on foreign oil results in the increased likelihood of a U.S. soldier or civilian dying or being injured N times. N could be five times or a 1000. No one knows and N is in flux. Unfortunately, if you buy a car that gets excellent gas mileage but is less safe in crash-worthiness and handling, you may reduce N (albeit, microscopically) — that is, the average danger for all Americans — but significantly increase the danger to yourself and family. On the other hand, if millions of Americans buy a car that gets excellent gas mileage but is less safe in crash-worthiness and handling, N may get reduced to the degree that you’re overall safety is hugely increased. This trajectory towards safety is reinforced in that fewer large cars will, in effect, make your small car more crash-worthy.

Setting aside the economic costs of a mass devaluing of millions of SUVs and of the collapse of the domestic auto industry (which was saved by the mini-van and SUV), why don’t we all buy Priuses tomorrow? Because of the effect known as the tragedy of the commons. When tens of millions of energy inefficient cars are replaced by smaller vehicles, those who hold on to their big iron will get the benefits of reduced N and of a more crash-worthy car. In other words, a lone individual’s decision to buy an energy efficient but less crash-worthy vehicle cannot be rationalized as a safer choice, at least in the short run. It can be viewed only as form of modeling that might catch on.

Safety and global warming

When the worlds second largest oil company, the man who saved Chrysler, and a legendary racing engineer, are freaked by global warming, it’s not just an alarmist’s thing. And it’s not just a futurist’s thing. People are dying today because of global warming and more will die in the future. While there are those who believe that global warming is not a result of auto-created pollution, or isn’t really happening, if they’re right then the worst-case scenario is fuel-efficient vehicles and, subsequently, less dependence on foreign oil; if the skeptics are wrong, and we don’t do anything to reduce pollution, then we’re on our way to a world (literally) of trouble.

The issues for safety and global warming are much the same as for safety and gas mileage aside from the obvious difference that for the former both better mileage and better pollution-control matter. So while a diesel car such as the Volkswagen TDI might approach the fuel efficiency of a hybrid such as the Toyota Prius, it’s not a low-emissions vehicle. Even biodiesel fuel, for which the primary target is to lower pollution for fleets of heavy duty vehicles, cannot currently compete with the low-pollution output of a hybrid. Whether hydrogen-based hybrids, gas-based hybrids, or something else dominates the future of efficient, non-polluting automobiles, for the foreseeable future, only the latter is available.

An attempt to increase your personal safety by buying a fuel-sipping, low-emitting hybrid suffers, once again, from the tragedy of the commons effect. On the other hand, the possible long-term consequences of not curtailing pollution far outweigh even the consequences of war.

The safest cars

Before I get to my conclusion I want to answer: why do I just talk about family cars? Don’t I care about young drivers? Yes, more than I care about old drivers such as me. Nevertheless, it is rare that a young driver can afford a late-model vehicle, with all the safety features I’ve described. Compacts and older cars just aren’t as safe as mid-sized and newer cars. Young drivers should try to get mid-sized cars with air bags. If they buy compacts, then they should get the best handling and best-rated in crashes, such as the Honda Civic and most any Volkswagon model (although the latter has a record of poor reliability).

Here is a summary of what makes a holistically safe vehicle:

  • Good handling and braking
  • Weight of about 3500 pounds; less is more dangerous (in a crash), more isn’t helpful
  • Low center of gravity
  • Anti-lock Braking syste (ABS)
  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC)
  • air bags (used correctly), everywhere
  • Good gas-mileage
  • Low-pollution emissions engine

So, with the above criteria in mind, which cars are the safest? If this was an article in a typical magazine, I’d make up a point system and score a bunch of cars, but point systems are useless because, either every criterion gets weighted the same or, because the weighting of the testers aren’t the same as mine. Dynamic web sites, on the other hand, can allow you to follow a decision path or to punch in your own values. But that approach assumes a rationality in decision-making that I’ve yet to observe in humans. So where does that leave me? Since I began this research to help in my own decision, I’ll tell you what I want and why, and you can riff off of that.

Before my research, I was skeptical about both how cost-effective and how environmentally friendly hybrid-powered cars are. My chief concern was that the battery was designed to last just the length of it’s 8-year/100,00 mile warranty, the so-called “life of the car.” I expect a well-made car to last twice that long. After adding the cost of a new battery (current list price is $3500) to the premium you’ll pay for a hybrid, saving on gas is going to cost you a lot of money. On the other hand, the price of gas is going up steadily while the price of a battery replacement is expected to sink to $1000 in eight years. And Toyota is now saying their batteries have gone over 180,000 miles equivalent in the lab. They also state that, as of June, 2004, they have yet to have a Prius battery fail (although here is a report about a Prius battery failing after 245,000 miles). So if I did buy a hybrid, and kept it for a long time, I would save money, even if the price of gas stops rising.

My second concern with hybrids is the disposal of the environmental unfriendly nickel-metal hydride batteries. Toyota has assured the public that they have a comprehensive recycling program in place. To maintain credibility, the rest of the industry must follow Toyota’s example.

Only one car satisfies all the safety criteria: the Honda Accord EX V6 Hybrid has more horsepower than the conventional Honda V6 model, handles well, is among the best in crash test results (Govt. crash test results, Insurance Institute crash test results) for family-sized sedans, and is as fuel efficient as the compact, which is rated at 33 mpg. It comes, standard, with air bags, front, rear, and side, ABS, and ESC.

Drawbacks of the Honda? It costs over 30,000 dollars even if the dealers don’t charge a premium, as many have with the Prius. While 33 mpg is terrific compared to similar cars and any SUV, it pales next to the Toyota Prius’s rating of 55 mpg. If you value indirect safety (environmental health, independence of foreign oil) above crash protection and superior handling, then the Toyota Prius is the safest car on the road because it is rated at 55 mpg. It’s above average in a crash. In fact, the Insurance Institute’s Injury, Collision & Theft losses chart, which uses insurance claims rather than controlled tests, makes the Prius look very good in injury avoidance despite its under-3000-pound weight. (What the chart really reflects is a combination of the car’s safety attributes and the driver’s.) To match the Hybrid Accord’s safety features, you’ll spend upwards of 24,000. (The exact price depends on the dealer’s inclination to charge a premium.)

If I ignored the difference in price, I’d choose between the Prius and Honda this way: if I did most of my driving on city streets, I’d choose the Prius; if I did most of my driving on the freeway, I’d go for the Hybrid Accord. (At high speeds, I prefer a superior-handling car.)

There are only four of us in our immediate family so, even with the occasional friend, we fit in either the Accord or Prius. If I needed six seats or more, I’d choose a mini-van, but not with enthusiasm, the reason for which I’ll get to below. As a class, mini-vans are very safe cars. I’d choose either the Honda Odyssey or the Toyota Sienna, two of the safest vehicles on the road. If I really needed a SUV, I’d probably go for a Honda CR-V, among the safest in its class (it hasn’t been tested for rollover yet). Why not a Ford Escape, the new hybrid SUV that’s rated at 31 mpg? Because in government rollover tests, they tipped while none of the tested passenger cars did.

None of the above

Regardless of the progress the Hybrid Accord and Prius have made in the direction of improved gas mileage and low emissions, I would not buy either unless I really, really, needed a new car, now. As good as they are, they’re not that good when you consider their price. Over the next few years, many new hybrids are going to come out, models across the entire range of vehicles. A hybrid V6-powered Accord EX would be fun to drive but at 33,000 dollars (with tax and license), or higher, far more costly than a four-cylinder LX model would be, even when equipped with hybrid technology and all the safety goodies — and it would approach 40 mpg. Such a car, or a similar model from a different company, would be an attractive compromise between the Prius and current hybrid Accord. In addition, hybrids will soon ratchet the fuel efficiency of mini-vans and SUVs by a third. And after the initial models, battery technology will keep improving to create far more efficient hybrids. Who knows? Maybe some auto engineers will even find a way to stop SUVs from being suicide/homicide machines. I can dream.

While I’m waiting for the car companies to create my dream, holistically safe car, I have a plan. I happen to own both a four-cylinder Accord and a battery-powered lawnmower. If I can get the Accord to ask the lawnmower out for a romantic evening… I’ll even drive.

Update, 4.6.2005

Gas mileage for the Hybrid V6 Accord has turned out to be disappointing. Recent tests in Car and Driver and Consumer Reports (subscription required) report observed gas mileage of 25 and 26 mpg — hardly better than the four-cylinder Accord (24 mpg) or even the non-Hybrid V6 Accord (23 mpg). Still, Consumer Reports loves the Hybrid and rates it as the top family sedan. According to, the Ford Escape SUV Hybrid averaged 26 mpg during its first 3000 miles — excellent for a four-wheel drive vehicle and much better than the 18 mpg got for the Escape’s twin, the Mazda Tribute. If only the Escape had better rolllover resistence. While neither the Ford Escape nor the Honda Accord are wonders of efficiency, they're better than the alternatives in their respective classes.

Unintended consequences

This article is not about gas mileage, but about safety, and since I already scolded SUVs for their psychopathic tendency to kill humans, it’s only fair that I point out the danger of almost silent cars, which hybrids are at slow speeds. Ever see a “Deaf Child in Neighborhood” sign? Hybrids make us all, in effect, deaf. Drivers of hybrids are noting that silence is not golden; they're running over unwary animals and it could get worse.

Nothing wonderful has happened recently in the world of automobiles. There still isn't a holistically safe car on the market. Wake me when an automobile gets at least 40 mpg, has ultra low-emissions, protects its occupants while not slaughtering those in other vehicles, doesn't rollover, and doesn't increase the chances of running over squirrels and children.