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When should I get a new car... for safety reasons?
September 3, 2009 1:42 PM   Subscribe

When should I get a new car... for safety reasons?

To what extent should safety improvements be taken into consideration when deciding to buy a new car (or a used car with more modern safety features than one's current car)?

I'd like to take one of my comments from an earlier question - please see here - and pose it as a question for the hive mind.

I drive a 1998 manual transmission Toyota Corolla, which was paid off years ago. It's reliable, fuel-efficient, and has front airbags (not side-curtain, though) and anti-lock brakes. I drive a lot in the city and seldom on the highway. Only 75,000 miles so far, and I add perhaps 7,000 or so to that total per year. My seven- and five-year-old kids occasionally ride in the car (perhaps 1-2 times per week for each) but it is primarily an econobox for commuting. I make every effort to drive safely and conservatively.

How might (or did) the availability of electronic stability control, side curtain airbags and/or another safety feature affect your decision to buy (or not to buy) a new car? Houstonian had a good reply to my comment in the earlier thread about the importance of driving defensively... I'd assume that is every bit as important as having the latest safety features, but is that an accurate assumption? Are IIHS crash study results useful in this analysis?

For environmental and financial reasons, I'm biased toward driving the car into the ground. I'm concerned that I'm giving safety short shrift in my analysis, however.

Many thanks in advance.
posted by cheapskatebay to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total)
 
Honestly I dont see a reason to get a new car yet. Stability control means nothing to somebody who knows how to really drive a car.

I have a 2004 corolla which doesnt have side impact airbags or stability control.

As long as your car doesnt break down all the time then why get a new one?

Your car doesnt seem any less SAFE then my 2004 corolla.
posted by majortom1981 at 1:45 PM on September 3, 2009


If you had a 1988 Corolla, I would absolutely say, "Yes. Get a safer car."
But, since you're doing most of your commuting in the city and your kids are only occasionally in the car, I'd say stick with it. The 98 Corolla is still a reasonably safe car. It's not a tin-can by any means.
I'm totally with you on your environmental and financial reasons, too. Maybe, since you don't have a car payment, you could take the edge off your safety worries by carrying a little more insurance on the car.

You never know what amazing new technology they'll come out with in a year or two. I'd give it a little time, since your current car isn't antique and it still has some good basic safety features.


Stability control means nothing to somebody who knows how to really drive a car.
This is true in some respects. However, no matter how good a driver you are, you can't brake each wheel individually to keep the car on the road, or make thousands of calculations per second. Stability control can.

posted by Jon-o at 1:58 PM on September 3, 2009


There's nothing wrong with your car. Take the amount of money you'd spend on a new car and plow it into appropriate vehicle maintenance (e.g. better tires, suspension and brakes; new lights to replace lights that have dimmed over time; clean and clear windows and windshield wipers) and new car seats for the kids.

Side impact bags are worth it. Stability control, less so, if you're a conservative driver that never pushes the car into dicey situations.

Really, the best safety bang for the buck you'll ever get is having new, top-of-the-line tires that are properly inflated.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:59 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Your car is plenty safe.

Electronic Stability Control (or traction control, or whatever the manufacturer wants to call it) only comes into play in combinations of racing, terrible weather, drifting, and wreckless driving. If you are not doing any of those things, traction control options literally will not even engage.

Side airbags are a slightly different concern, but I most certainly do not think that you are shirking your duties as a parent by not having them. Side airbags have proved to provide some additional safety in a very specific and relatively uncommon type of accident, getting them is not a reason to get a newer car.

Drive this damn thing into the ground!
posted by milqman at 2:00 PM on September 3, 2009


Electronic Stability Control (or traction control, or whatever the manufacturer wants to call it) only comes into play in combinations of racing, terrible weather, drifting, and wreckless driving. If you are not doing any of those things, traction control options literally will not even engage.

Cites, pls. So far I have found a NHTSA analysis that doesn't mention these behaviors.
posted by found missing at 2:09 PM on September 3, 2009


I have no stats here, this is just my educated guess.

I would expect the best investment would be to keep your current car in top shape (good tires, properly maintained brakes). If you already have that, and also already have excellent health insurance, then consider a new car for increased safety.
posted by zippy at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2009


Also, traction control apparently is different from electronic stability control.
posted by found missing at 2:26 PM on September 3, 2009


There is no better investment in vehicle safety than brand new tires.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:31 PM on September 3, 2009


I am very cheap, but I wouldn't dream of driving, or letting anyone I love be a passenger, in a car without maximum airbags. Side-curtain airbags are what protect you from brain injuries.
posted by Lizzle at 3:45 PM on September 3, 2009


At the age of your car, it might be worth looking into the expected lifespan of the airbags. A quick google says 10-15 years is typical. It's still cheaper than a new car.
posted by chairface at 5:16 PM on September 3, 2009


It really boils down to a safety/cost assessment, and it's up to you as an individual to make that assessment for yourself.

For instance, if you don't have kids, and you've never been in a car accident, you might decide that the cost of a new car is a huge detriment, and the safety benefits negligible for your circumstance. If you have kids, and you've been in a major car accident, you might decide that the cost of a new car is nothing compared to the protection that airbags provide for your children. Of course, having extra money around provides a certain amount of safety for your kids, too, the safety of knowing they'll be able to eat and live indoors and get medical care.

So, I would make a general statement that you must attempt to find the largest safety gains at the lowest cost; for automobiles, that means owning the cheapest (oldest, most likely) car you can find that was build after mandatory safety testing went into effect, that got good ratings at the time, and that was built by a company known for achieving consistently good safety ratings in their cars.

Since the car you're driving falls into all of those categories, you should be good to go -- with the understanding that side airbags and door beams have led to tremendous improvements in side impact safety in the last few years, so if you do elect to buy a newer car, you should spring for the extra required to get one built after mandatory side-impact testing went into effect (and otherwise meets the above criteria.)
posted by davejay at 5:18 PM on September 3, 2009


At the age of your car, it might be worth looking into the expected lifespan of the airbags. A quick google says 10-15 years is typical.
That figure increases all the time. Early airbag systems required an inspection at 5 years, then they changed it to 8 years, then 10 and so on. I was recently told by our Head Airbag Honcho that any supposed expiration of airbags is yet to be determined, since they haven't really had any expire yet. And, if you're worried about corrosion in the wiring harness, don't. The airbag control module checks the resistance of the igniter circuit every time you turn the key on. If it had a problem, you'd see a light on the dash. Mercedes Benz introduced the airbag in 1980 and I would drive that very first car with no fear of a malfunction.

posted by Jon-o at 7:52 PM on September 3, 2009


Actually General Motors introduced the airbag in 1973.
posted by dacoit at 8:00 PM on September 3, 2009


As Jon-o said, consider the lifetime of the airbags.

Otherwise, as an anecdote... My ex was involved in an accident in a mid 90's Corolla (I don't remember the exact year, sorry). She was t-boned at an intersection by a small SUV. The impact happened directly on the passenger side door.

If she had had a passenger, they would have been immediately killed. Instantly.

In the driver's seat, she came out of it with scratches and bruises.

Her daughter, in the car seat in the middle of the back, came out of it without any real injuries (other than being freaked the heck out).

So it's all where you want to take your risks. If someone slams into your driver's side door, you're pretty much doing to die. But so am I in my 2001 car. And in my 2006 truck, depending on the height of who hits me.

Otherwise, by the mid 90s the Corolla had gotten pretty good as far as crumple zones go. Just keep your child in the middle back seat, and make sure you don't get hit anywhere you have someone riding.
posted by krisak at 8:18 PM on September 3, 2009


Stability control can be a problem if it's too aggressive. My 2007 Prius invokes the almighty control every time any wheel goes bump, which in that car is usually at low speeds. This means when I'm trying to make a turn and get up to speed to match traffic, it slows me down, creating a more, not less dangerous situation. Also, just today, I hit a bump while slowing before a turn and it gave me the horrible feeling of drifting into the cross traffic just ahead of me. Sometimes, taking control from the driver is a bad idea.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 11:54 PM on September 3, 2009


Actually General Motors introduced the airbag in 1973.
Thanks! I don't remember where I came up with Mercedes, but it made sense in my head.

posted by Jon-o at 4:10 AM on September 4, 2009


Some really misleading stuff going on in this thread about stability control. First, what is it? It's a system that uses accelerometers, steering angle, other inputs to calculate where you intend for the car to go, and then uses brake and sometimes throttle interruption to correct your path. (It's not traction control, which uses brake and throttle interruption to prevent drive wheel slip.) In an emergency situation, in any loss of traction, any instance of deviation from your intended path, stability control is very useful, like others have stated, because of the level of precision and the speed with which it acts. It's not just useful for show-boating, and you can usually turn it off, if you wish, if it's too aggressive. It's an active safety measure which can prevent crashes, and the US has made it mandatory for cars to come equipped with it by 2012, Canada by 2011, and the EU will probably follow suit.

When considering an upgrade, I think stability control is the safety feature to consider. You have anti-lock brakes---although you don't have rear discs---and you have some airbags. You're really missing this third, active safety measure, the kind that works to prevent a crash, not just mitigate the impact. From the Wikipedia:

The NHTSA estimates 5,300-9,600 traffic fatalities could be avoided if all passenger vehicles were equipped with the feature. According to the IIHS one-third of fatal accidents could be prevented by the technology.

That being said, I would probably wait until I was buying a replacement car and then make sure I got it. But that's a personal decision. In the meantime, there are other things you can do to promote safety including ensuring you have adequate tires and inflation, servicing your brakes including fluid change, and adapting a more safety-conscious driving style.

Here's a list of other newer safety features:
Traction control, electric brake-force distribution, brake drying, brake-fade compensation, brake readiness, panic brake assist, lane departure warning, blind spot radar, heads-up display, knee airbags, side impact airbags, and so on. You can watch the flagship models for the latest before they "tickle down" to the others.
posted by luckypozzo at 6:49 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


My car is newer than yours, but I'm replacing it soon because it doesn't have side airbags, doesn't have the greatest safety rating, and my little kids are usually with me when I drive.

I've put off buying a new one because I can't find a car that has everything I want (safer, bigger, better MPG) but I'm going to make some compromises -- and safety is the one thing I won't cut back on. I also drive safely and conservatively, but that didn't help when we got rear-ended by a guy driving a big old truck.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:57 AM on September 4, 2009


Staying in your current car will save (say) 5 years of interest and depreciation on a new car, which would be roughly $10,000.

The annual fatality rate from automobile accidents is roughly 0.013%. ESC and side airbags reduce this by roughly 20%, for a rate of about 0.010%.

So you'd be paying roughly $50 million per life saved. My advice: drive safe, get good tires, get your annual physical and look both ways when crossing the street. Then buy the new car in a couple of years.
posted by miyabo at 6:05 PM on September 4, 2009


Electronic Stability Control (or traction control, or whatever the manufacturer wants to call it) only comes into play in combinations of racing, terrible weather, drifting, and wreckless driving.

Surely wreckless driving is what the poster is hoping for?

But all joking aside, I would suggest that a '98 stick shift Corolla is a perfectly fine car for a family these days. In fact, a friend of mine has a '97 (the same chassis as your North American '98, I believe), fitted with 16" rims from a 2004 model, a strut brace in the engine bay and stiffer shocks and springs, and having been a passenger in that over the course of its upgrades, and having test-driven the current model 'Rolla, I have to say that his car is a far more involving, entertaining and enjoyable car to drive. Lighter, too. And I should think -safer- for all of that, because as a driver you are less divorced from the machinery than in the newer model.

Plus, in the new 'Rolla you sit much, much higher than in the older car, in part because it makes some people -feel- safer. But that increases the centre of mass and means that the car is more likely to -need- a stability control system in the first place.

Put your money into shocks, springs, good rubber. And a strut brace is about the easiest thing to bolt in you can imagine, and will work wonders for the car's handling around corners.
posted by MarchHare at 8:47 PM on September 4, 2009


Lots of fine advice here. My sincere thanks to all who've responded.
posted by cheapskatebay at 12:30 PM on September 5, 2009


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