Are we crazy to drive our two kids around in a 1984 Buick LeSabre?
February 16, 2010 7:25 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I have two older cars ('84 and '94). Are the safety features in newer cars so far superior that it's irresponsible to drive children around in older cars if you can afford to upgrade?

My husband inherited his grandmothers 1984 Buick LeSabre in 2001 and drives it to work every day. He also does most of the transportation of our two kids (3 & 5). The commute isn’t long (10 miles roundtrip) and is typically on surface streets, not the highway. Both kids are always strapped into their car seats but we don’t have the LATCH system, so the seats are held in place with the original seatbelts from 1984. We are in the Northeast, so snow/weather can be an issue.

I looked at a previous Mefi-question about older car safety but it didn't have much in the way of specifics and I need some hard data to convince my husband that we should replace his car. On the other hand, if it's not way more dangerous than I love not having a car payment.
posted by victoriab to Travel & Transportation (50 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely, yes, and this video illustrates why. There're more than just features at play - modern cars are designed to distribute impact loads away from the passengers in far, far more sophisticated ways than most lay people can comprehend. The safest 25-year-old car is still far, far more dangerous to its occupants than the worst new car.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:28 AM on February 16, 2010

Here's another great (though not quite as relevant) video.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 7:30 AM on February 16, 2010

Is it irresponsible? That's hard to say. Is it more dangerous? Definitely. A new car with anti-lock breaks, shoulder harnesses, emergency interior trunk latches, air bags, OnStar, all-wheel-drive, traction control is definitely safer than a car from the '80's. Almost everything in cars today has been upgraded with an eye to safety - even the lights. I say that because I own a car from the 80's, but I drive it for fun, not basic transportation. I know what it doesn't have. I know what my 2006 car does have.
posted by clarkstonian at 7:33 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's incredibly more dangerous. Since the 1979 automotive-related deaths have dropped by a staggering 35%. The actual number nearly always hovers around ~47,000, but our population continues to grow (this is in the US.) Sorry, but if you can afford it, you really, really owe it to your children to buy a newer car. Buy it used if you want, but get something with anti-lock brakes, traction control, inertial-reel seatbelts, etc.

At this point, you're essentially putting yourselves in danger because it's cheaper. Think about that.

As for hard data, does Wikipedia count? Otherwise, check out FARS and NHSTA.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:47 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was just thinking on this, considering a vintage VW air-cooled Double Cab as a project car. Vehicles older than the early '90s need to be looked at as inherently dangerous, like a motorcycle or dune-buggy. As a fun project, and something to tootle around town or firetrails with, sure. Absolutely not for taking the kids to school or on extended road-trips.

Airbags and shoulder-harnesses and crumple zones - these will keep you alive in wrecks at highway speeds (40mph+). Even the most basic beater from 2000 will be designed to keep you alive short of anything but the most horrific sorts of wrecks, where a car from the '60s would absolutely kill you with what looks like a minor accident to modern eyes.

Big, massive cars that could shrug off impacts with sheer inertia are sort of OK, but it's a gamble. I was rear-ended by a late model Nissan Maxima in my old '69 Caddy. I felt a small bump, but heard a tremendous crash. The Nissan was totalled, and the guy inside pretty beat up (always wear your seatbelt! Even with airbags!) The Caddy's trunk lid and bumper each needed a small dent pulled. But I would be smushed straight up if the Caddy ever rolled over.

The '94, depending on make and model, may be ok. (Does it have airbags? Have the airbags been inspected by a mechanic lately?), but knowing the quality standards cars had in the '80s, it's time to retire it - trade it in, or tansfer it from "transportation" to "hobby" status.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:55 AM on February 16, 2010

Yes, you are crazy. I wouldn't drive myself around in a car from 1984, much less my non-existent children. Airbags and ESC in particular are two huge safety improvements. According to IIHS 1/3 of fatal accidents could be prevented with ESC. In frontal crashes, frontal airbags reduce driver fatalities by 29 percent and fatalities of right front passengers aged 13 and older by 32 percent .
posted by phoenixy at 8:10 AM on February 16, 2010

I work for an insurance company. Some of these things we care about, some we don't.

Airbags are a pretty big deal, but not for people in the back seats, especially kids in car seats. But note that while you can buy a new car without anti-lock brakes, you can't buy a car without airbags. This ought to say something about their relative importance.

This is because the value of anti-lock brakes are kind of equivocal. Their utility is not entirely conclusive, and possibility mitigated by other factors. But most people rarely use their brakes hard enough for the ABS to kick in--even when they hit something--so their safety value isn't as great as for airbags. As a result, a lot of companies give a little bonus for them, but it's generally only a point or two.

But something else to consider: most insurance companies don't even really consider the safety factors of cars older than 1980. They're lumpted together as an inherently higher risk. So a '84 is starting to get a little borderline.
posted by valkyryn at 8:12 AM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: My husband inherited his grandmothers 1984 Buick LeSabre

What you also need to understand is that a 1984 Buick Sabre was already old in terms of car design when it was new. They are horrific cars, dynamically and in primary and secondary safety, and I'd say "Hell yes!" to a question about a 1984 Volvo (arguably the safest car of the era) versus a modern one. So being as the Sabre is several years less capable then the Volvo, I'd move to 'less than responsible'.

Your car is very, very poorly designed compared to even your 10 year newer car. Legislative pressure (rather than selling points) regarding safety have only relatively recently come into effect (when you heard about it is probably 5 years before car design effectively combatted the issues due to model cycle times), so things you were worrying about in 1984?

When will a CD player fit in my car?

See the issue? Any car comparable pre-1995 is less safe than any post. Add 5 year increments (or so) and the same will be true. A 25 year old car (and not a very good one at that) is crazy to claim to be safe.

As to specifics:
Even though your kids are strapped into their seats, crash survival is all about reducing the crash impulse (peak decelleration of the occupants). Being effectively and efficiently strapped to a poorly performing, 1984 brick of a vehicle is not as effective as being securely strapped to a vehicle with complex crumple zones designed to reduce any possible chance of a g-spike that would kill someone. Car seats - even good quality ones - cannot make up for the limitations of our vehicle to absorb the impact. Not to mention that kids are far less able to withstand these g-spikes than adults.

The car is, if you judge it against a modern crash model for legislation, a dangerous dinosaur. If the safety of your kids is the metric by which you are judging this decision, then this is less than a no-brainer. Change the car.

Big, massive cars that could shrug off impacts with sheer inertia are sort of OK, but it's a gamble.

This is a severe understatement. The gamble is underplayed - you need to always have your accident with a vehicle with less momentum than you to play this gamble, and that is not at all reliable. Big cars survive accidents better than small cars. This does not in any way directly relate to "the occupants of big cars survive accidents better". It depends on each individual accident.
posted by Brockles at 8:15 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In a word, yes. Older cars are far, far more dangerous, especially in side impacts, and if you can afford to drive a new car, it's an essential safety investment.

Just to pluck an example out of the air, take the Toyota Camry. Here are its crash test results from the IIHS over a number of years. Note that in 1994, it had an "acceptable" rating for front crash tests. But in ever year prior to 2004, when it got option side airbags, occupants would be absolutely creamed in a side-impact test.

For a car another decade older - from 1984 - your front-crash results would look like the side-impact results from 1994. No airbags, much, much less high-strength steel and two decades less of engineering experience in creating crumple zones to protect occupants. Just to give you an idea of the impact of modern crumple zones, take a look at another Fifth Gear video here. Note that the vehicle without the benefit of modern car construction is not some old Pinto - it's a relatively modern Land Rover Discovery, which by its very weight you would expect to do well in a two-car head-on collision. It doesn't, because it has a stiff frame and a front end that doesn't deform in the same way a car-based vehicle's does. Modern car safety engineering is a wonder. Everyone should take advantage of it.

Incidentally, all that stuff about how the commute isn't long, isn't on the highway, is irrelevant. Ever seen what happens to a car that gets T-boned at an intersection by someone running a red light?

As for a particular car, take a gander at the IIHS Top Safety Pick list. If you're in an area that gets a lot of snow in the winter, you may want to consider a new Subaru (Subaru has been acing crash tests for a few years, but keep in mind that they've also been improving as criteria get more difficult - a Top Safety Pick from 2006 may not have the anti-whiplash head restraints and electronic stability control that are now prerequisites for a top rating). Other alternatives with AWD include the Ford Fusion (the only reason it's not on the list is that its roof strength is only acceptable, but to me that's the least important criterion, since in a car with ESC you're unlikely to be flipping over; you may feel differently), or the Ford Taurus with AWD. Both are excellent cars, and Ford's quality is now the equal of the best Japanese makes. Having at least a midsize vehicle will help keep you safe in a two-car crash. If you're planning on having another kid, then consider a Toyota Sienna with AWD - they've just released a new one, and it would be a big, big step up in safety. Huge. Enormous. Even a last-generation Subaru Legacy, Forester, or Toyota Sienna would be a big step up from what you're driving now in terms of safety.

Also, if you're driving in the snow, keep in mind that AWD is useless if the tires can't get grip with the road, and even more pointless if you can't come to a stop in icy conditions. Run the latest winter tires on your vehicle; it's the best investment you can make in terms of safety. For cars, I'd recommend the Bridgestone Blizzak WS-70, which will be available in the fall, or the Michelin X-Ice Xi2, which is available now; for minivans and SUVs, the Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V1. Seriously, you're way better off with FWD and winter tires than AWD and "all-season" tires that get stiff an non-grippy when the weather gets cold.
posted by Dasein at 8:19 AM on February 16, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the great input and TheNewWazoos video was sobering. I see all these small cars zipping around and it's hard to believe they would survive an impact with the Buick. I guess the point is that the car itself might not survive but the people inside would survive much better.

My car is a '94 Audi station wagon, so it has airbags in the front but I'm not sure about the other safety features that InsanePenguin mentions. Anyway, this is all good ammunition and I really appreciate the comments...keep 'em coming.
posted by victoriab at 8:23 AM on February 16, 2010

This is because the value of anti-lock brakes are kind of equivocal. Their utility is not entirely conclusive,

Complete rubbish. Did you even read the article you linked to? That is utterly and ridiculously erroneous advice. If you have ABS you may not NEED your airbags in a lot of cases. You are also completely ignorant of the concept of Primary and Secondary safety - Primary: the ability to avoid an accident. Secondary: the ability to survive an accident that has occurred. The two features are incomparable in terms of relative worth.

Besides, using insurance statistics and weighting to judge safety is ridiculous. Insurance premiums are weighted based on likelihood of being in a crash, not causing it. It is not, by any means, a sensible metric by which to judge the merits of vehicle safety.
posted by Brockles at 8:24 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you wanted more of a mid-sized crossover, Ford is about to bring out a new Explorer that has the first optional rear airbags - in the seatbelts, to spead the force over a five-times greater area.
posted by Dasein at 8:28 AM on February 16, 2010

This is because the value of anti-lock brakes are kind of equivocal.

I just saw this, and also wanted to chime in and say bullshit. Forget what happens in an accident (passive safety) - ABS keeps you out of one. No human can pump the brakes the way ABS can, and in a panic stop, on snow or ice, the ability to just press harder and harder on the brake and get a better response, instead of locking up and sliding, is a life-saver. It's active safety at its best - as is electronic stability control, BTW.
posted by Dasein at 8:30 AM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Dasein, thanks so much for the specific car recommendations and the top safety list link. The Mazda5, Toyota Rav4 and Honda CR-V are cars I've been considering but I noticed that none of them were on the top safety list. I find the 3rd row option appealing but the pricing/safety matrix might make me rethink this preference and just go with a more safe car at a price we're comfortable paying. Subaru has been a longtime favorite of my husband so that might help with the decision.
posted by victoriab at 8:34 AM on February 16, 2010

as is electronic stability control, BTW.

Which is different entirely from traction control FWIW, victoria. I'll never buy another car without stability control (which helps you maintain intended direction as well as reducing chance of rollover by actively braking on the wheels that need it in a slide,) but I can live without traction control on anything that I don't intend to take off-road. (Traction control just levers power to different wheels to get the most, you guessed it, traction.)

Also, since you're in a snow-prone area, you should know that if you're stuck in the snow say, trying to get out a parked spot, try turning off the stability control. That'll let your wheels spin to find ground instead of braking on them when the computer senses you're sliding. Irritating, that.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:48 AM on February 16, 2010

Subaru's are phenomenal, but I thought I might pimp the Kia Soul while I'm here. Significantly cheaper if you were to buy a brand-new car, and it has great safety ratings.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:50 AM on February 16, 2010

victoriab, since you're interested in those particular vehicles, some explanation of the IIHS methodology is in order. They have five tests, and f0r 2010 a car needs to ace each one to get a Top Safety Pick, but each is not necessarily as crucial. They are:

Front Impact
Side Impact
Rear Impact (testing just the seat for active head restraints that prevent whiplash)
Roof Crush Test (modelling a rollover)
Does the vehicle have Electronic Stability Control?

For 2009 and previously, they did not have the roof crush test. Back in 2006, cars didn't need to have ESC, and a car that was awarded only an "acceptable" rating in rear-impact tests and a "good" rating in front and side tests was a Top Safety Pick Silver. Because the roof crush test is new, not all cars have been tested yet; so look at the 2009 ratings if you want a longer list.

The Mazda5 is not tested by the IIHS for some reason. I would say that Mazda's rear-impact results are not stellar. Whiplash injuries are all too common, and given the low cost of active head restraints, there's no excuse for automakers not to be acing these tests with every model they sell (and for regulators not to require it).

The Rav-4 has aced all the test since the 2009 model year (see rear results here) with the exception of the roof test. The roof test was just introduced this year, and it's a judgment call as to how much a risk you think it is that the roof might crush in a rollover. I have to say, I know a young girl who died when her small car accidentally rolled over on a soft shoulder, so for me it would matter, but an "acceptable" as opposed to "good" score might not be a deal-breaker for you.

The CR-V gets only a marginal score in roof crush tests, which is too bad since it's a nice vehicle and has had good head restraints since 2006.
posted by Dasein at 8:54 AM on February 16, 2010

Also, the Kia Soul is a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS and has great NHTSA ratings as well.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:59 AM on February 16, 2010

And the Kia Soul has Electronic Stability Control. It has truly proven itself to be a vehicle worthy of snow in NJ with all the storms we've been getting. I only got stuck once and that was in a foot of unplowed snow. I'm willing to bet that with snow tires or even chains I would have been fine, I just didn't purchase them because I don't think anyone thought NJ would get this kind of snow this winter and I just bought my Soul in August.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:01 AM on February 16, 2010

Wanted to chime in with an alternative view point here, but first totally agree with the above, modern cars are so much better built, better handling and can handle crashes so much better there really is no comparision.

The most important safety feature in any car is the driver. Or rather the skill and attention of the driver. The most survivalable crash is the one that doesn't happen, which means when you are driving that is all you are doing. I ride a motorcycle a lot for daily transportation and have learned to pay attention, a lot, or I would be dead. So an investment in skill could pay dividends in a big way for anyone concerned about safety and staying alive on the roads.

As far as technical stuff that really matters-ABS brakes on my motorcycle have kept me upright and in control several times, best feature ever. A good set of tires and overall good mechanical condition of the car is really important, something critical breaks and you are off the road, or doing something else unexpected. I am somewhat skeptical about stability control, but if you are not trained/experienced in driving a car that is on the edge of losing control it is probably a really good thing. Crumple zones/airbags and the like are good things, but if they come into use you have already failed. That being said life happens and sometimes you can't avoid it so a useful thing.

In the end, the 90's audi is probably not a bad car at all, although i shudder at the possible maintenance costs. The 84 le sabre wasn't a good car that day it rolled off the line as far as handling and build quality goes. If you can, replace it. I would totally agree with insanepenguin (not something i thought i would ever say) about the Kia Soul-great car for the money and Kias seem to be really well built little economy cars. I would rate them at least as good as honda was 10 years ago.
posted by bartonlong at 9:09 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: '94 Audi? Safe enough. '84 domestic car of any sort? Personally, I'd dump it.

Here is a graph that shows fatality rates per 100 million miles traveled. It's dropped from around 2 to 1.2 since '84. This Australian site has model-by-model rankings. Cars from the 80's don't get rated well.

Causes of the huge decline in fatality rates? Seat belt compliance, drunk driving reductions, unibody construction (vs body-on-frame), better road design and traffic engineering, airbags, antilock/stronger/better brakes, tire technology, stability controls of all types, vastly improved suspension design, transition to mostly front- or all-wheel-drive cars, improvements in materials (higher strength steel, cheaper aluminum), computer with the balls to run huge finite element analyses during the design process, increased auto safety standards and testing, etc. Everything has gotten safer, but it's notoriously difficult to suss out all the factors that go into auto safety. Don't read too much into any one thing.

A lot of those safety improvements are achievable with your old car. Want to drop your odds of dying in an accident? Buckle up, pay attention, don't drink, turn off the cell phone, put good tires on your car, limit your exposure to high speed 2 lane roads and make sure it's in good shape. If you do all those things you're probably going to be looking at "average" odds of dying in an accident even in an old car. That's still not great. In any given year, you're looking at a 1:6000 chance of dying.

I own a '91 BMW and a '99 Passat. Prior to the '91 BMW, I had an '88 BMW. All were pretty state of the art in their days. Probably a generation beyond American and Japanese cars (that euro/jap/usa gap is gone today, FWIW). I've done enough of my own car repairs to be familiar with how they're put together and the design differences among them are incredible.

The older BMW was essentially a gorgeous tin can. The roof support pillars were about as big around as four fingers and there wasn't much attention paid to crumple zones. I loved it. But, I've seen pictures of them after rear-impact accidents, and when I had a kid I couldn't stomach putting them in the back seat regularly. They basically fold in half when hit.

The middle car is starting to have thicker columns supporting the roof, an airbag, a beefier support behind the bumper and real crumple zones. It's vastly safer. Safe enough that we take family trips in it and I don't worry too much. The pleasure of driving it offsets the increased risk for me. I'm a little more attentive, but not paranoid.

The newest car is a quantum leap. HUGE braces to transmit forces laterally across the car in offset frontal impacts. The roof is essentially a gigantic high strength steel arch that channels impact forces from front to back. The bolts that hold structural members together are bigger and stronger. The beams inside the door are twice as large as the older car had. The rake of the windshield would deflect a lot of stuff (deer, errant 2x4's, etc). The door comes up higher on your body and the window openings are smaller. There are 4 airbags. It's a tank, and it's already more than 10 years old. New cars are yet another step ahead in terms of technology.

I don't think it's necessarily irresponsible to drive an older car if you do it carefully. You're _definitely_ at a significantly increased risk of dying, but it might be better to use that $300/month savings for education or healthier food. Hamburgers and ignorance reduce life expectancy more than cars.
posted by paanta at 9:14 AM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Dasein - hmmm, well I'm glad I'm not too attached to any of those models because if I'm going to get a new (or newer) car than safety is really the #1 issue. I'm shocked that they don't all do well on the rear impact test...I agree that it's a critical flaw since it's a pretty common accident. I'd really like a good roof crush score since I know someone who was directly impacted by this issue.

Insane Penguin - thanks for putting the Soul on my radar. I hadn't even given it a look because I know nothing about Kias and don't know anyone that owns one. Even looking at Hyundais was a big step outside my comfort zone but I'm trying to open my heart (and driveway) to all safe and affordable brands.
posted by victoriab at 9:21 AM on February 16, 2010

At the risk of being overbearing (can you tell I adore my car?,) the Soul also scored phenomenally on rear-impacts.

Totally agree with you about not looking at Hyundais and Kias, but in recent years they've come to the head of the pack in terms of safety and affordability. In any case, if you couldn't sell your husband on a Kia, Subaru's are great cars. If I could have afforded one that came with all the fancy bells and whistles my Soul has, I would have sprung for an Impreza. Financial sense won out the day, though!
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:26 AM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, I read the article.

Yes, I understand the difference between primary and secondary safety. I work in insurance. We care both about avoiding accidents and minimizing damages.

No, what I said isn't bullshit.

There's data to suggest that ABS is worth having. But 1) it isn't good enough for the NHTSA to have mandated it the way they have for airbags, and 2) there is data to suggest that the benefits doesn't quite live up to the hype. Lots of accidents occur without ABS ever kicking in, and as getting hit isn't actually something you have any control over, ABS is not nearly as relevant as airbags, which go of regardless of how the accident happens, to that very significant risk exposure.

Worry about not having airbags. ABS is nice, but if that's the only thing "wrong" with the car, you should be okay.
posted by valkyryn at 9:55 AM on February 16, 2010

The technological advances, such as airbags, ESC, and others are hugely important. But what really sticks out to me is the structural engineering of vehicles nowadays. Specifically, crumple zones. When you see wrecked vehicles, some of them may be obliterated, but when you look, there is little if any damage to the passenger compartment. The front and the rear of the vehicle is designed to take the punishment. This is hugely important. An '84 Buick is not going to do very well in this area, especially compared to a newer vehicle. Look up the IHS 50th anniversary crash test video for an even more dramatic demonstration.
posted by azpenguin at 10:16 AM on February 16, 2010

valkyryn, I didn't mean to be rude, and I appreciate that you have knowledge in this area; but given that almost every car today has ABS, I still think it would be incredibly dumb to buy a car without it. A few hundred dollars will seem like nothing when you hit a patch of ice coming up to an intersection. Why spend thousands to survive an accident and not spend a few hundred to stay out of one?
posted by Dasein at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2010

victoriab, I forgot to mention: the new Buick Lacrosse is also available with AWD, and it's a really nice car (proof, along with a number of other fairly new or upcoming GM models - Malibu, Cruze, Camaro, Equinox, Regal, CTS, SRX Turbo, to say nothing of the Volt - that whatever they're paying Bob Lutz, it's not enough). May not be what you're looking for in terms of price, but if it is, it's worth considering.
posted by Dasein at 11:17 AM on February 16, 2010

Anecdotally, my ABS has saved me from needing my airbags twice. Both times were of the "brake a little - not enough. A little harder - not enough. Oh shit HARD! - not enough. Steer around/off to the shoulder with ABS pounding away" variety. One of them I steered between the cars in adjacent lanes, ending up the lead car. I'm pretty sure I could not have pulled that off without ABS.

I don't know if my airbags even work (I assume they do) and I like to keep it that way.
posted by ctmf at 11:46 AM on February 16, 2010

Lots of great advice in this thread already, but I just wanted to mention that LATCH is a convenience and not actually a safety upgrade - assuming you have modern seatbelts (not sure that 1980s era seatbelts are as good as modern ones). A seatbelt install of a car seat on a modern car is equally safe and secure as a LATCH install, its just that LATCH is easier. Also note that LATCH installs have a max weight, usually of 40lbs, so once your kid is a large toddler, you will need to switch to a seatbelt install anyway.

A good resource for car seat info and car child safety info is There are a myriad of sub-forums on every imaginable topic related to your question, you should look at the Car Safety forum in particular.
posted by Joh at 11:58 AM on February 16, 2010

There's data to suggest that ABS is worth having. But 1) it isn't good enough for the NHTSA to have mandated it the way they have for airbags, and 2) there is data to suggest that the benefits doesn't quite live up to the hype.

No, there is data to suggest that people don't know how to use their cars properly. This is not any fault, nor any statement of value, of the ABS system but a people problem - just as much as total lack of understanding of energy and momentum (ie tailgating) is. Your logic is equivalent to searching for accidents where people didn't even touch the brake, then arguing that brakes at all don't make cars safer, because sometimes people don't use them. It's ridiculous. A system that is being ineffectively used does not become redundant due to operator error.

And I work in Insurance is the issue for your skewed perspective. There is no data for 'number of cars that avoided an accident and why' to use to establish your viewpoint. There is no way to track "near misses where everyone was alright", nor any way to collate the data beyond utterly useless anecdotal advice. The only data is for the number of cars that do have ABS yet have crashed; these accidents are then analysed for why a car that should have been able to avoid a crash didn't do so - the conclusion is operator error, yet you have interpreted that as "Well, no point having ABS, then".

The problem you are seeing, which the Insurance industry to some point (but not sufficiently) address is that driver training needs to be higher and rewarded. If driver standards were better, ABS would be (by your logic) essential as all people would use it properly. If the point of your post (as of someone else above) would be "you need to learn to use your car properly with better training" then you'd be right. To conclude from that data that ABS may not be worth having is ridiculous and needs addressing here, as it is dangerous and ill-advised veiwpoint. ABS is not the problem, so to claim that it isn't worth having is ridiculous and yes, it is a Bullshit statement.
posted by Brockles at 4:29 PM on February 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree, you don't need LATCH, however cars with LATCH also come with tether anchors and it is absolutely required to tether your carseats otherwise they are completely unsafe.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:41 PM on February 16, 2010

We recently did the search for a new car thing, and found a subscription to Consumer Reports to be worth its weight in gold for comparing different models. They have a website with comprehensive info about the models, including used cars going back something like ten or fifteen years. Safety info, stats, little essays about various features, etc.

If you're going to buy, read the Confessions of a Car Salesman essay for some sales tactics to be wary of.

(Also - on a personal note, we were buying because we had an accident. The car was totalled, but we were both unhurt. Let me tell you, crumple zones are where it's at.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:18 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: Joh - Thanks so much for the info about LATCH. I didn't realize that it wasn't a safety feature. Crazycanuck's comment about tether anchors made me wonder if this is what I was thinking of (versus LATCH). I know we don't have either but I know people that have had their older cars retrofitted in some way for car seat attachment.

Paaneta/Bartonlong - The good news is that we're both very safe drivers. No accidents (except the odd person sliding into our back bumpers on occasion and leaving no damage to speak of), no traffic tickets and a generally good awareness of what other drivers are doing around us. My issues revolve more around the fear of an odd random incident of someone running a red light versus us going 90 miles an hour on the highway.

LobsterMitten - I am an avid reader of Consumer Reports and think that this is really what got me thinking about the differences in the safety equipment of our current cars and new/used cars. I'm glad you guys weren't hurt in the accident and would love to know what you ended up buying?

Thanks again for all the great input. It caused a pretty heated discussion on the homefront and will hopefully bring about a resolution that makes everyone equally happy/unhappy (& safe).
posted by victoriab at 6:56 AM on February 17, 2010

victoriab, it occurred to me today that the video linked in the first comment, while demonstrating pretty convincingly the superiority of a modern car over a slightly old car, might leave the impression that a small or mini modern car will leave you in good shape in any head-on collision at 40 mph. Keep in mind that one of the reasons the new small car did so well is that it has a lot more high-strength steel than the older car. The results would not be the same between a modern mini car and a modern larger car.

The video linked at the top right of this page from the IIHS gives a pretty sobering demonstration of the benefits of size in two-car crashes. The IIHS took minicars that got the best frontal impact rating of good (the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Smart car) and crashed them against their manufacturers’ mid-sized twin – Accord, Camry, C-Class. By changing the crash from moving car into concrete block to moving car into moving car, the IIHS wanted to show the effect of size on safety. Every single one of the minicars went from Good to Poor. Not Acceptable to Marginal, but all the way from the top of the safety results to the bottom. This is why the IIHS emphasizes that you can’t compare front-crash ratings between different classes. (Side impacts, on the other hand, all simulate an SUV barrelling into the side of your car, so they can be compared.) Keep this in mind when shopping for a new car.
posted by Dasein at 7:21 AM on February 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Dasein, thank you so much for clarifying this issue. I had come away with exactly the wrong conclusion you mentioned.
posted by victoriab at 7:49 AM on February 17, 2010

Yes, Dasein's point about the crash ratings is a very good one. We ended up getting a small car (an '06 Honda Civic) because we were looking for reliability, fuel efficiency, and the most modern/airbaggy etc car we could afford for a pretty low budget. In our price range, there was no chance of getting stability control, though there were some eg '04 cars that had all-wheel drive which we were considering. The weight of the all-wheel drive system kills the fuel economy, and would have put us into an older car with fewer airbags/etc, so we decided to go with the smaller, fuel-efficient, slightly newer car. I am not completely convinced we made the right tradeoff between cost/fuel efficiency and safety, mainly because of the weight issue that Dasein mentions -- if we had kids, we would probably have chosen differently.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:41 AM on February 17, 2010

Brockles, for someone who takes such an adamant position based on a number of rather important factual assumptions... you're pretty thin on actual facts.
posted by valkyryn at 10:59 AM on February 17, 2010

Edmunds has some useful stuff - notably, "True Cost to Own" ratings which include some info on maintenance costs for different models, what insurance companies will charge you to insure the car, fuel efficiency, etc. If you're thinking about buying, it's another site that's worth exploring.

Another interesting chart is Insurance losses by make and model, which may give some indication of how the crash test results play out in the real world. (Note, of course, that a sports car might have more crash losses because people drive it crazily, where a minivan might have fewer because people drive it slowly - so the losses on different models might not reflect the risks for YOU in driving that car)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:02 AM on February 17, 2010

One last comment and then I promise to stop.

If the purchase price of a new car is an issue, in addition to the cars above that I think are worth considering (2004-2009 Subaru Legacy; 2004-2008 Subaru Forester; 2004-2010 Toyota Sienna), a couple of very safe midsize crossovers have been around long enough that their used prices will have come down – the Subaru Tribeca (from 2006) and the Volvo XC90 (from 2003). With any of these vehicles, you should check that there is electronic stability control in the model you’re getting, since it may have been optional or not available in early years (though the XC90, based on this article, had it from the get-go).

You can also check out each manufacturer’s rear impact rating on the IIHS (Subaru and Volvo are excellent, Toyota really should do better, but if you want a minivan with AWD for winter the Sienna is it). You get to not spend the crazy prices some of these guys charge for new cars (hello, Volvo), and given the cars you’re driving now I take it you aren’t the sort of people who must have a new car smell every three years to be happy.

For pure safety and praticality, I think the XC90 is very attractive. Of the XC90, Jeremy Clarkson, who liked it enough to buy one, once wrote, “It is by far the best of all the school-run-mobiles because there really is room for seven people, 14 legs and two dogs in the boot as well. No other car maker — and this is strange — has managed to pull off a similar trick without ending up with a bus.”

Good luck, and if you decide to replace the Buick and this thread isn't closed, do drop back and let us know what you decided on, or send a MeMail. I'd be curious to know.

And whatever you do, don't forget to put a set of Blizzaks on whatever you get.
posted by Dasein at 11:21 AM on February 17, 2010

Brockles, for someone who takes such an adamant position based on a number of rather important factual assumptions... you're pretty thin on actual facts.

The point I was making is that there are no facts to support the assertion that ABS is not as valuable a contributor to the safety of a vehicle as airbags are - there is no data that can be used to compare them, so to suggest that the usefulness of ABS is marginalised is ridiculous.

ABS is a great advantage for the skilled or unskilled driver. This has been proven time and time again. Tens, maybe even hundreds, of safety surveys showing hugely reduced braking distances have been produced, especially for the untrained average driver. So there are an enormous amount of facts to support the position that ABS is a 'very good thing' tm.

There is no data set available to compare which is the safer - airbags or ABS - because not only are they made for completely different situations (ABS: controllability and avoidance of an incident while the car is moving vs Airbags: Ability to protect the occupant from sudden decelleration and distortion of the vehicle during an impact) but it is impossible to collect data from accidents to conclusively prove any such claim as was being made because the cars that avoided them are nowhere to be seen - they went home safely. They carried on driving and looked in their mirror and sighed in relief at the mess. No-one recorded their g-, brake and steering traces to establish how they avoided the accident and whether or not ABS helped in that particular instance.

There is no data for "how well a car avoided an accident and how much of that was due to the ABS". There is no dataset to be able to conclude any relative worth of the two systems. It simply doesn't exist, therefore you cannot make that conclusion. ABS makes a car safer - full stop. Any suggestion otherwise is idiotic.

Besides, using the scaling of an insurance company - which has the sole purpose of saving money by reducing the likelihood of a large payment, and nothing at all to do with safety - can only allow you to perhaps judge the likelihood of an expensive accident. Airbags reduce personal injury - claims for which are far, far in excess of that required to fix a car. No wonder it's rated higher then ABS. In Insurance monetary terms, they don''t give a crap if you crash you car - that's only a 20-30K payment or so- but if you get massive hospital bills? NOW we're talking some hurt for our profit! They could be an order of magnitude higher in cost. Best reward airbags, I reckons!

(Yes, ABS has limitations on gravel and deep snow (not allowing the wheels to lock and 'shovel' to stop for instance) but the vast, vast majority of driving is not done in deep snow or gravel so these are edge cases. They also only really affect the car during the last 10-15% of braking (the actual coming to a stop bit). It's a hugely edge case for the average driver.
posted by Brockles at 4:29 PM on February 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

You also can't think about this as though your 1984 vehicle has been kept in a time capsule for the past 26 years, either. It's been out in the world deteriorating. While considering the fact that the safety features aren't as advanced as a new vehicle, think about all the places under the car that you can't see where the frame and body are so corroded that you can poke a screwdriver through it.

Having typed that, it sounds really dramatic and dire, but seriously, corrosion and deterioration are legitimate concerns when discussing the safety of older vehicles. I failed a 1991 Ford Escort for PA safety inspection recently because the body and frame were falling apart. I could poke my finger through the floor from underneath the car. One good pothole and some major structure of the vehicle could have failed.
As a professional automotive technician working in the northeast US, I see many cars that have spent their life exposed to snow, salt, and bad weather. I'd be willing to bet that your 84 Buick is, no offense intended, a clapped-out, unsafe, rust bucket. Please, get something safer than that to transport your kids in. The last 1994 Buick that I saw was in terrible shape and I can only imagine what an 84 would be like at this point. It's harsh, but in no way a judgment on you, but I would feel unsafe driving an 84 LeSabre to a junkyard, let alone 10 miles every day.

A car made in the past 10 years is likely to be substantially more INTACT in addition to having been made with better safety features.

Recently, I owned a 1984 Mercedes 300SD in addition to my 2006 Mazda3. In size, weight, and scale, the Mercedes was comparable to a locomotive while the Mazda, comparatively, is more like a go-kart. Despite the fact that driving the Mercedes felt kind of like driving a tank, it felt very unsafe compared to the Mazda. I had many chances to compare them back to back, park one, hop into the other. The improvements in handling and braking (combined with the lack of frightening and structural creaks and rattles) clearly illustrated the benefits of having a newer car. The Mercedes, in its day, had a much higher build quality than most GM cars and 26 years later, it was a huge piece of shit. Your Buick probably is, too. If it came into my shop for inspection, I'm sure I could find a dozen reasons to take it off the road.

I really urge you to take structural integrity into consideration when determining the safety value of a new vehicle.

Of course, the mechanic who's been looking after your car knows more about it than I do and is the right person to ask about how intact it is. So take it from them and not from me.
posted by Jon-o at 5:06 PM on February 17, 2010

Too much of a coincidence not to break my promise and post it.
posted by Dasein at 8:04 PM on February 17, 2010

Best answer: The article I linked to in my last comment is going to go behind a pay wall eventually, and parts of it are quite relevant to the discussion we've been having. I'm not going to reproduce the whole thing, but some excerpts are in order.

You can thank U.S. insurance group for our safer modern carsJeremy Cato
Globe and Mail Thursday, Feb. 11, 2010

We've come a long way - at least when it comes to vehicle safety. And some might argue that government regulators - particularly Canadian government regulators - have had almost nothing to do with it.

However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a research group funded by the U.S. insurance industry, would likely be counted among those who have had a massive impact on vehicle safety.

"In safety terms, we've come very far, very fast in just the past decade," says IIHS president Adrian Lund. "When the institute began conducting frontal tests for consumer information in 1995, few vehicles earned top ratings. Now almost all do. Most cars failed the side tests we added in 2003.

"Test results in that initial round were so bad we nearly broke our budget for repairing the crash test dummy. But now most vehicles ace the side test thanks to side airbags and stronger side structures.

"Factor in improved head restraints to protect against whiplash and electronic stability control to prevent crashes, and consumers are the clear winners."

Lund and the IIHS say the near-wholesale adoption of critical safety gear as standard equipment on most new vehicles has had a huge impact on saving lives and reducing vehicle-accident injuries.

While no agency publicly compiles such figures in Canada - not Transport Canada, nor any other government agency - the IIHS does. In the United States, says the institute, 92 per cent of 2010 model cars, 99 per cent of SUVs and 66 per cent of pickup trucks have standard side airbags with head protection. Electronic stability control is standard on 85 per cent of cars, 100 per cent of SUVs and 62 per cent of pickups sold in the United States.

Yet even though new vehicles are vastly safer now than a decade ago, the IIHS keeps pushing. The latest IIHS safety target: roof strength.

"Now that roof strength is a priority, we think manufacturers will move quickly to bolster roofs to do well in our roof strength test. This means consumers likely will have more Top Safety Pick choices for 2011," Lund says.

Ah, the Top Safety Picks. For 2010, 19 cars and eight SUVs earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick nod. Lack of roof strength to protect occupants in rollovers tripped up dozens of vehicles that had earned the nod in 2009 when 94 nameplates were named Top Safety Picks.


To get the top safety nod, vehicles must do a "good" job of protecting people in front, side, rear, and now rollover crashes. Winners also must have electronic stability control; ESC significantly reduces crash risk, according to various research studies.

"With the addition of our new roof strength evaluation, our crash test results now cover all of the most common kinds of crashes," Lund says.

Still, regardless of the ratings, buyers anxious to get the safest ride should remember that size does, indeed, matter. Larger, heavier vehicles generally afford better protection in serious crashes than smaller, lighter ones, Lund says. So even with a Top Safety Pick, a small car isn't as crashworthy as a bigger one.

This is why for many family buyers, a mid-size car might represent the best package of safety, fuel economy and affordability. Simply as a result of their size, a well-made mid-size car offers superior protection to a smaller car. Certainly large cars and SUVs can offer more protection based on size and bulk, but a larger vehicle is often impractical and unaffordable for many mid-market buyers.


"Cars and SUVs that win Top Safety Pick are designs that go far beyond minimum (U.S.) federal safety standards," Lund says.

Kudos to the IIHS, then. But the obvious question is why - why are researchers for the insurance lobby doing more to push auto makers on safety than government agencies officially charged with that responsibility? Just asking.


The IIHS tests


Vehicles rated "good" have roofs more than twice as strong as the current (U.S.) federal standard requires.

The Institute for Highway Safety estimates that such roofs reduce the risk of serious and fatal injury in single-vehicle rollovers by about 50 per cent compared with roofs meeting the minimum requirement.

Frontal crash-worthiness

Evaluations are based on results of 40 mph (64.4 km/h) frontal offset crash tests. Vehicles are evaluated for their ability to protect occupants from intrusions that might cause injury.

Experts use slow-motion film to assess how well the restraint system controlled crash test dummy movement during the test.

Side impact protection

Side evaluations are based on performance in a crash test in which the side of a vehicle is struck by a barrier moving at 50 km/h. The barrier represents the front end of a pickup or SUV.

Rear crash protection

This test simulates a collision in which a stationary vehicle is struck in the rear at 20 mph (32 km/h). Seats without good or acceptable geometry are rated poor over all because they can't be positioned to protect many people.

Roof strength

To test roof strength, a metal plate is pushed against one side of a roof at a constant speed. To earn a "good" rating for rollover protection, the roof must withstand a force of four times the vehicle's weight before reaching 127 mm (five inches) of crush.

THE Top 10 Safety Features

Seat Belts

Seat belts are designed to keep occupants inside a vehicle in the event of a crash. They also reduce the risk of occupants suffering an impact with steering wheel, dashboard or windshield. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says seat belts are one of the most important safety features available.

Side-impact and side-curtain airbags

Side-impact airbags are mounted in a car's seat backs or doors and protect the torso during side-impact crashes. Side-curtain or head-curtain airbags typically deploy downward from the vehicle's roof rail and generally span the length of the cabin.

Antilock braking system

ABS prevents a vehicle's wheels from locking by rapidly applying intermittent pressure when a driver brakes. This allows the driver to maintain some measure of steering control in emergency situations or on slippery road surfaces. ABS is also the foundation for advanced accident-avoidance technology such as electronic stability control (ESC).

Electronic stability control

ESC senses when a vehicle is starting to lose control and automatically applies brake pressure to one or more of its wheels to turn the vehicle in the appropriate direction. It assists drivers in maintaining control of their vehicles during extreme steering manoeuvres or on slippery roads.

Active head restraints

These head restraints narrow the space between an occupant's head and the headrest. The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says properly positioned headrests or head restraint can help prevent neck injuries in a crash.

Child safety seat compatibility

Parents and drivers of small children need to make sure child safety and booster seats are properly secured in a vehicle.
posted by Dasein at 6:56 AM on February 18, 2010

Er, XC90 maybe not be the best on fuel and reliability.
posted by Dasein at 8:25 AM on February 18, 2010

Okay, I know this is crazy, but one last comment for future readers of this thread. Earlier on I was comparing the progression of crash test scores in the Camry. A better example would have been the Volkswagen Passat.

Look at how badly a 1997 model would have done in the frontal crash test.

When it was redesigned in 1998, it went from Poor to Good, but take a close look at those pictures: the A-pillar buckled in a 40mph crash. If that crash had been much more severe - say 50mph or into another moving car - there would have been a much more serious risk of injury; I'm really not sure why the IIHS rated its safety cage as good in that particular crash; maybe something eludes me. That model of car was sold until 2005.

Now look at the current Passat, in production since 2006. Same crash, A-pillar stays rock solid, and the energy is absorbed by the front end of the car, the damage stopping dead at the passenger compartment. That's modern car safety engineering for you. That's the difference that nine years makes, let alone the more than 33 years that have passed since the 1984 Buick LeSabre was designed and today.
posted by Dasein at 1:30 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hello! Me again. The guy with the strange obsession with posting in this thread. So, I'm reading this review of the new Honda Odyssey, and it mentions the advancements in the latest generation minivan. This is a van that was already pretty damn safe - it went from this kind of front crash result in its 1998 model to across-the-board good ratings in its latest model and was a Top Safety Pick last year. And yet, when it comes to the 2011 model:

Roof crush strength is 2.2 times stronger; side intrusion resistance 3.7 times greater.

I think that's pretty amazing. And that's an improvement from a 2010 model that would have had its basic engineering work done around 2002, give or take a year.
posted by Dasein at 8:28 PM on September 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Dasein, I love that you're still posting in this thread because we still haven't replaced either of our cars. When one of them explodes next weekend and we have 24 hours to go buy a replacement, it's this thread (and your comments in particular) that I'll be reviewing to help make our decision. Thank you.
posted by victoriab at 7:36 AM on September 13, 2010

For the first time, a study has correlated real-world crash test results with IIHS crash test results. It turns out that a driver is 70% less likely to die in a left-side crash if he or she is driving a vehicle with a Good side-crash rating than a Poor rating.

To put that in perspective in terms of industry advancements, 8 years ago only 17% of vehicles acheived a Good rating; 78% do now.

In other news, the NHTSA is now rating vehicles using a revised crash-test rating system. Results can be viewed here. Some cars that have actually done quite well in IIHS tests have not done particularly well under the new NHTSA tests, such as the Nissan Versa, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, Toyota RAV4. So far, vehicles that have had top results in both sets of tests include the Chevrolet Cruze, 2011 Hyundai Sonata, 2011 BMW 5-Series and Volvo XC-60. The current-generation Honda Accord also got 5 stars under the new NHTSA criteria, and has missed out on an IIHS Top Safety Pick only because its roof strength is Acceptable rather than Good.

Several more vehicles, including the Ford Fusion, Honda Odyssey and Subaru Forester, have yet to be tested for the 2011 model year. (But if they are before this thread closes, expect an update.)
posted by Dasein at 12:56 PM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, some of the results are in, and it turns out that the 2011 Honda Odyssey gets a 5-star NHTSA rating, (it's also an IIHS Top Safety Pick). This is better than the also-redesigned 2011 Toyota Sienna, which, despite also being a Top Safety Pick, only got a four-star rating. That might not sound like a big difference, but if you look at the detailed results, you can see that the rating for a passenger in a frontal crash is only two stars. The various component results are mathematically combined to get a weighed overall score, so it's important to check that the total score isn't concealing some shortcomings, which in my view it is in this case.

The Subaru Forester similarly gets a four-star rating (and Subarus have been doing very well in IIHS tests). But, again, if you look at the ratings, the side crash results leave a lot to be desired - there are two two-star results in there.

Nothing yet on the Ford Fusion, but if anyone's thinking of buying one, it's easy to check.

On the topic of high-strength steels, which we were discussing upthread, Ford has been making a big deal about its use of ultra-high strength boron steel in some of its recent small-car offerings. When promoting its recent launch of the Fiesta in North America, for instance, they put out a release about the use of high-strength steels, including a graphic that usefully illustrates that huge amount of engineering that goes into creating a modern safety cage. They even did a somewhat campy promotional video with some guys who apparently have blended lots of hard-to-blend things, to see if they could damage a piece of boron steel. No dice, unsurprisingly. (Actually, it's a major budgetary issue for fire departments to try to keep up with automakers, because they have to keep buying hugely expensive new equipment to cut people out of car crashes, because the existing Jaws of Life equipment can't get through the roof beams and A-Pillars with the latest ultra-high-strength steels.) With the new Focus sedan and wagon arriving, Ford is again pointing out the extensive use of high-strength steel in the car. Automakers are using types of steel and steel-forming technologies that didn't exist in mass commercial application, if at all, 30 years ago, to meet new safety standards.

Here endeth the lesson. Safe driving!
posted by Dasein at 2:47 PM on February 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just in time! The current-generation Ford Fusion gets 4 stars. It's another IIHS top safety pick (since 2010) that fails to get the top grade in the new NHTSA tests. That leaves the Chevrolet Cruze, Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata as the best affordable choices among cars at the moment, and the Honda Odyssey as the standout minivan.

And a long Bloomberg article on Ford's use of ultra-high-strength steel to meet fuel economy and safety standards.
posted by Dasein at 3:48 PM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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