The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has published a shopping guide for those wanting to buy a new car based upon safety features. While the guide does provide specific car lists (from station wagons to sports cars) it also reveals some overall safety basics to keep in mind.
Vehicle Size : Quite simply, bigger means safer. According to the shopping guide, "People in small vehicles are injured more often and more severely than those in large vehicles." In relation to their number on the road, small vehicles account for more than twice as many occupant deaths as large vehicles. Small sport utility vehicles have the highest death rates of all, in part because of their greater involvement in fatal rollover crashes. "While utility vehicles and passenger vans might go head-to-head in a popularity contest, passenger vans have good on-the-road crash experience --- similar to that of station wagons."
Air Bags : Serving as a buffer between vehicle interiors and occupants' heads and faces, air bags provide automatic protection in frontal crashes. The Institute advises that although "the speed and force of air bag inflation may occasionally cause minor injuries such as abrasions, this slight risk is far outweighed by the benefits." This type of injury can be reduced by selecting a seat position that is not too close to the steering wheel.
Safety Belts : Remember, the more comfortable the safety belt, the more likely you are to alwaysuse it. Even though shoulder belts allow some forward movement, automatic crash tensioners and/or belt webbing grabbers can reduce the chance of an occupant hitting the steering wheel or dashboard in a serious frontal crash.
Antilock Brakes : Especially designed to avoid skidding and loss of control, antilock brakes automatically pump several times a second. Drivers need to become familiar with the difference in braking style as antilocks require heavy braking pressure to activate this safety feature.
Head Restraints : Required in the front seats of all new passenger vehicles, head restraints prevent occupants' heads from snapping back in a rear-end crash. Look for a fixed head restraint or an adjustable restraint that is designed to protect tall and short people even in the "down" position. Avoid a poorly-designed adjustable restraint that would only protect the shortest occupants.
Built-in Child Seats : Several cars and vans offer built-in child safety seats as options.