How much safer are newer cars?
February 5, 2018 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Our friend is encouraging us to buy a new or new-ish car for safety reasons. We currently drive a 2006 Ford Taurus and plan to drive it into the ground. Is he right?

We are driving a 12-year old car that serves us well, but is reaching the end of its life. We plan to eventually buy another used car because that's how we roll - basically because of frugality and the fact that we're not rich, we don't think it's smart to buy a new or very new used car. Like, I'd be looking at cars that are at least 5 years old, probably even older. Depends on the mileage, really.

We have a friend who keeps encouraging us to buy new, or very-new-used - because of safety. Frankly, I know for a fact he sees cars as a status symbol and I suspect he just wants us to be as in debt as he is, but that doesn't mean he's wrong and we definitely care about safety. We have one child and I'm pregnant with the second.

I assume, yes, newer cars must be a bit safer, but how much safer? How many years old would you aim for? Or is the make and model a more important consideration? How do I learn more about this? I found a consumer reports article, but it's comparing new cars to those made in the '90s.
posted by kitcat to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t have any science to base it on, but I just moved from a 2011 Touareg (Lux level trim) to a 2015 Mercedes GL that has mid range options and the difference is pretty amazing. My new-to-me vehicle has knee airbags for the driver, lane departure warnings, 360 camera and a fancy little button that calls emergency services should I ever need them. For my husband and I, buying the safest vehicle we could reasonably afford was our priority. We drive in south Florida and it’s a little scary here, so it makes us feel better to have the safest thing we can afford to transport our family. YMAndComfortLevelMV
posted by PorcineWithMe at 12:19 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The airbags were the big jump, and that was before 2006. I'd hang on until you think It's Time. (most of the magic of the last few years has been things like phone adapters and distracting GPS screens and so forth. most of my experience is based on med-low-end rental cars.)
posted by acm at 12:28 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

When we updated from an older car to a 2014 model, our insurance rates went down dramatically- because the newer car was safer. YMMV. We have two 2014 cars, one with a backup camera and one without and I really wish we had held out for the backup camera on the 2nd- makes me feel so much better having an extra pair of eyes to keep me from backing over anyone.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:28 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

You've got features to consider (does the car have curtain air bags and such or just front and side airbags?) You've got the crash performance of the particular make model and year of vehicle you choose (i.e. some vehicles have better crash tests results than others even given equivalent safety equipment) and then you've got driver assist features (auto braking, cross traffic alerts, stability control etc) which are of varying utility depending on your driving skill and attentiveness.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 12:30 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The major safety features that have been added over the past decade or so have been electronic stability control (ESC) and backup cameras. The NHTSA mandate for cameras doesn't go into effect until May, but implementation has been increasing for a while. Wiki tells me about half of all cars had them in 2012. It's possible to add an aftermarket camera if you find a car without it.

The NTSB's "most wanted" list includes other features for passenger vehicles, notably forward collision warning systems (pdf). They also call for more advanced technologies like automatic emergency braking and lane deviation warnings. These will all be easier to find on newer vehicles.

All this stuff is about avoiding crashes; since crash performance is really model-specific I think the best way to investigate that would be to look up the IIHS crash test ratings for the model and year you're interested in. Of course, not getting in to a crash is undeniably safer than getting in one but I'm not sure statistics are currently available to inform how less likely you would be to get in a crash using newer technology.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:30 PM on February 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

I bought a new car in 2014, my first new one ever. It's a Hyundai Elantra hatch and the backup camera was worth every penny. Would def recommend Hyundais from the last few years.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 12:31 PM on February 5, 2018

I mean, yes. The standards for crash testing increase every year, so each year cars are incrementally getting safer. Technically. His argument is legitimate one, but a very narrow, one dimensional one. There are cheap, safe cars.

You can cruise the safety ratings here for tons of cars, even older ones and you can decide.

We have two cars, and there was a VALUE/SAFETY/CARGO/PRICE venn diagram that basically dictated what we bought. Safety isn't the end all. They're all safer than a 56 Buick special.

If you're buying on safety only you're looking at a Tesla model S, which has been touted as the safest car (for the drivers and passengers) in testing history. Mock your friend relentlessly for not purchasing a Tesla S; when they complain about x y z for not buying a Tesla S, tell them to drop it when it comes to expensive car talk with you.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:31 PM on February 5, 2018 [12 favorites]

The best way to be safer is to drive less, period.

However, see here for NHTSA report on safety improvement s2000-2012. They are real, and though notable when accumulated across all drivers, rather in a particular household use case. The changes becoime more important to you personally the more you drive, and the more you drive on the highway (see point 1 above).

See here for the NHTSA FY 2017 safety report. Note the prevalence of injury related to driving while diatracted, drunk, impaired, or unrestrained. Note that the safest new car changes none of those.

On balance, I think your comments on status are apt. Let's also not forget that auto makers are currently pushing safety as a way to sell cars. Rather than pursue alternative transportation, they try to convince you what you really need is a new car. Maybe you can reframe, be proud of good finances, best practices on safe driving, etc.

The NHTSA is your friend here, search their site thoroughly for good reliable info, and add their initials ot your serach queries on google.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:32 PM on February 5, 2018 [12 favorites]


From Consumer Reports: "It turns out that a driver of a car 18 or more years old is 71 percent more likely to die in a bad crash than the driver of a car three years old or newer. That’s pretty sobering—especially for parents looking to put their newly-minted teenage driver in an affordable used car. The association of fatality risk with vehicle age recedes quite smoothly with newer and newer models, at least in this study, which confined itself only to fatal crashes. The risk to a driver in a vehicle 8 to 11 years old, for example, is only 19 percent worse, and driving one 4 to 7 years old only 10 percent worse, than for drivers in those semi-new, 0-to-3-year-old cars. This “newness benefit” is worth bearing in mind if you’re considering buying an older used car for yourself or a family member."

Here's a much more visual answer from Road & Track.

Don't forget that there's a middle ground between new and 5+ years old. I tend to buy cars that are coming off their first lease - between 1 and 3 years old. The savings are 20-40% off new list price, but the cars are still in fantastic shape.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:32 PM on February 5, 2018 [10 favorites]

The safest car (in a crash) is a brand new one that gets the highest ratings in crash testing reports. That's pretty obvious. Older cars are less safe on a sliding scale due to older materials (fatigue/corrosion), lower crash testing standards when made and general unreliability of older components.

However, as I have (many times) mentioned on here, crash testing is not the be all and end all. Well, it is the end all, I guess. But. Moving on. Crash testing relates to what is called 'Secondary Safety'. It's what matters when you hit something. Primary safety is the car's ability to avoid an accident in the first place - by being more capable generally of avoiding edge case handling issues through conditions or mistakes. The ability to swerve around something - a great example is Anti-lock brakes are a superb Primary safety upgrade.

So the safest car overall, is a brand new one with the highest ratings (as above) but that also is the most capable ad spends most of its life being driven far below its handling limits.

So for the same car (Car A) you will have the same secondary safety in two examples of its usage, one when brand new, then the second example with worse primary safety 4 years later on because the tyres are worn down to legal minimums and are cheap retreads, the tyre pressures haven't been checked (the left rear is 8psi low) and the brakes haven't been serviced and the rear pads are almost worn out (for example). If you hit the wall, it's the same outcome, but you are much more likely to hit the wall in the second example.

So focussing on the secondary safety only is a distraction. It is far better to have a car of (say) 90% optimum secondary safety if it is also 20% better in Primary safety. So you can affect the primary safety of your car by proper servicing, the right tyres for conditions, regular tyre pressure checks etc.

So it really is a sliding scale of where you can afford to be on that scale. A brand new 'cheap' car (say a Hyundai) may have good crash testing numbers but is not really much more safe than an 8 year old Mercedes because one is built better than the other and the Merc is a more capable car. For a given set of edge case 'could have an accident' scenarios, you are likely to be more probe to having an accident in the lesser built car that has worse handling.

So - I would never buy a new car, because the depreciation loss is something I cannot stomach. So for a given budget level I'd rather buy a better quality 3-5 year old car. I'd tend to buy even older, but 3-5 years is modern enough to be within relatively current crash test regs, and I'd buy as far up the luxury/model range as I could afford within those parameters. Then I'd spend my money on servicing and keeping my primary safety in spec.
posted by Brockles at 12:33 PM on February 5, 2018 [10 favorites]

The two best things about newer cars for me are the backup cameras and blind spot indicators. I wasn't really sold on newer cars until I rented one and those features made me feel much safer driving. A lot of rental companies sell their 2 year old models for a decent price and will let you rent them for a day before buying if you want to see if it's worth the extra cost to you.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 12:41 PM on February 5, 2018

If you want a safe used car get a used Subaru. They tend to hold up better than other brands and if you can get one from the past 5 years it should have a backup camera. Even the very old ones tend to be real workhorses.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:42 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

FWIW, my wife was recently in an accident that totaled her 2014 Subaru Outback. The front end of the car was mostly destroyed, but the passenger compartment still looked as good as new, with the exception of the deployed airbag. She didn't have a scratch on her. With the insurance money she bought a 2018 Outback and even in those four years the differences are amazing. Auto-breaking, backup camera, lane drift warning, even more airbags, etc. Hopefully she'll never need to test out the safety features but it seems like every year they are making huge leaps in safety.

So I think a car ten years newer than your current car will be a hell of a lot safer.
posted by bondcliff at 12:45 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I can put this in a new question another day, but can anyone explain what's so great about backup cameras? I've only been driving for 3 years, but I have no issues backing up - I look left and right repeatedly the entire time as I back out, and I inch out. Reverse, stop, look. Etc. How is that not good enough?
posted by kitcat at 12:47 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

What is all this talk about backup cameras? That has absolutely zero impact on any safety aspect. It's more of a cost convenience thin(cross posted with your follow up - you're right).
posted by Brockles at 12:47 PM on February 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

In most cars, you can't see the spot directly behind your car. If an adult stands there, you can see them in your mirrors, but if a two-year-old stands there, you can't see them.

You can see that spot in a back-up camera.
posted by MangoNews at 12:59 PM on February 5, 2018 [14 favorites]

What is all this talk about backup cameras? That has absolutely zero impact on any safety aspect. It's more of a cost convenience thin(cross posted with your follow up - you're right).

Maybe not safety for you in the driver's seat, but safety for someone darting in back of your car -- say, a child playing in the driveway next door? Yeah. I've driven with both, and there's no comparison; it's the difference between actually being able to easily see what's behind you and more or less having to guess what's behind you.
posted by holborne at 1:00 PM on February 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

What is all this talk about backup cameras? That has absolutely zero impact on any safety aspect.

Isn't there a safety aspect for any people or pets behind the car? I rely on my back-up cam because I have an SUV with a somewhat small and tinted back window. But you're right, that's not really about driver or passenger safety specifically.
posted by JenMarie at 1:01 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

... also, the size of the rear window tends to be much smaller in newer vehicles, so the backup camera is there to compensate for reduced visibility.
posted by jillithd at 1:03 PM on February 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Ok, fair enough, for the sake of unaccompanied pets and small children I can see the utility of the backup camera.
posted by kitcat at 1:06 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Other things to consider when you’re balancing cost and safety: would it make more sense to, instead, use that money to reduce crash exposure in other ways? Maybe taking trains instead of driving on vacation, calling out of work when the roads are snowy, taking cabs if you’ve had even one drink, choosing a day care close to home rather than the office, getting things delivered rather than picking them up, etc.?
posted by metasarah at 1:15 PM on February 5, 2018 [8 favorites]

consumer reports says yes:
posted by evilmonk at 1:15 PM on February 5, 2018

Yes, back windows are smaller and that's what the camera is for.
posted by jbenben at 1:19 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The backup camera in our exciting Kia Sedona is also much better in low light than my Mark 1 eyeballs. I've also found that moving my attention between the backup camera screen and the windshield at least *seems* better than me flailing my head around all over the place to back up the Mazda3.

the size of the rear window tends to be much smaller in newer vehicles

ISTR that at least some of this isn't just styling but part of better rollover protection?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:19 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The association of fatality risk with vehicle age recedes quite smoothly with newer and newer models, at least in this study, which confined itself only to fatal crashes. The risk to a driver in a vehicle 8 to 11 years old, for example, is only 19 percent worse, and driving one 4 to 7 years old only 10 percent worse, than for drivers in those semi-new, 0-to-3-year-old cars. This “newness benefit” is worth bearing in mind if you’re considering buying an older used car for yourself or a family member.

This sounds like a "no" for all intents and purposes, considering that your car is basically in that 8-11 year old bracket. Dropping a bunch of money on a new-ish car just for the sake of a possible 0.84 multiplier to your nominal fatality risk doesn't seem at all worth it, if there isn't some specific feature in newer cars that has qualitative value for you.
posted by invitapriore at 1:46 PM on February 5, 2018

Crash test scores are useful, but comparing crash test scores across model years can be misleading, because the tests have become much more stringent. For example, in 2013 the IIHS added the new small overlap test. Many existing cars had very poor results on the new test, even ones that had gotten top scores in the years before the new test was added.

You can also look at data on real-world crashes.

The IIHS 2007 status report found that the 2004 generation of Ford Taurus had a fatal crash rate of 78 driver deaths per million registered vehicles each year. This was typical of its category. (The average driver death rate for all large four-door car models at that time was 79.)

The IIHS 2017 status report found that the 2014 generation of Ford Taurus had a fatal crash rate of 42 driver deaths per million registered vehicles each year. This was a bit higher than the average rate of 30 for its category.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:49 PM on February 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I bought a new car a year ago after driving an older car into the ground.

I thought the backup camera would be a frill, but it's very useful.
Visibility is poorer in many new cars .
The belt line is much higher hence windows are smaller.
The pillars are much bigger

Visibility is better in an older car.
The newer car is stronger
The backup camera serves a useful purpose.
I use it all the time now, but initially it seemed weird.

I have a "sensing package" option It use cameras and radar.
it'll keep you in your lane.
If it senses a collision,it will warn you and then brake automatically
It'll do some other things.
I don't find that very useful.

However when hitting the brakes hard as in panic stop, the difference between the older car and the new one is night and day
The various computerized systems work brilliantly together.
Truly impressive.
posted by yyz at 2:56 PM on February 5, 2018

If your plan again is to drive the next car into the ground over a period of a dozen or more years, you should buy at the optimal part of the value curve, which will be cars that are two to three years old. Incremental gains in all areas, including safety, will continue to accrue over the next dozen years, and from the standpoint of having the car in 2028 or whatever, no safety (or other) improvement between e.g. 2015 and 2018 models will make a marginal difference that will outweigh cost savings on the 2015.

If you intend to pay a premium to get on a new car/lease hamster wheel, the calculation will (obviously) change.

As a fellow car-driver-into-the-grounder, however, I'd be interested in how you know that your 2006 Taurus is nearing the end. For me, there is no nearing the end, there's "Fine" and there's "Needs a catastrophic repair that isn't worth the money" and that will happen suddenly, not on a curve.
posted by Kwine at 3:21 PM on February 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's just that expensive repairs no longer seem worth it. The air conditioning went 2 years ago, and the price to fix it seems too high. We've just been putting up with 2 months of suffering in the summer. Now that it's winter the frost on the windows won't melt even after letting the car warm up for 15 min, so something's wrong with that system too. We seem to replace the alternator and the battery every year now. So I just feel like something major will break sooner rather than later.
posted by kitcat at 4:13 PM on February 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

We bought a new car with a backup camera and all sorts of sensors that detect movement back there. There have been times where I've been backing out of a parking space, seen nothing to worry about, the car starts beeping so I hit the brakes, and then a full few seconds later someone is coming down the aisle. It notices things before I would, so it's not just about what's right behind you below your vision.

That being said, it also has guidelines for showing exactly how much room you have behind you and that's valuable for parking.

The car also has blind spot detection and will beep at you if you put on your turn signal while someone is in the next lane.

Compared to the older car we still have, it really is a huge difference. You're not solely relying on these sensors/camera but it's disconcerting to drive the old car and not have them.
posted by cali59 at 6:11 PM on February 5, 2018

Just upgraded from a 15-year-old car to a new car. I not only feel safer because of the safety features others have mentioned, but also because my car probably isn't going to break down or malfunction in the foreseeable future.
posted by beyond_pink at 12:55 AM on February 6, 2018

> The best way to be safer is to drive less, period.

I don't want to harp on this too much (because believe me, I could) but it is worth thinking some about this because it goes directly to answering your question, which is why it it is not always the smartest idea to spend every last possible nickel purchasing a vehicle that has the absolutely highest possible safety ratings and equipment.

The most effective and efficient way to cut your chance of being injured or killed in an automobile by, say, 50% is to eliminate 50% of the driving that you currently do.

As a bonus, the risk to people inside your car is only half the risk of driving. You also risk injuring/kill others outside the car--drivers and passengers in other motor vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. So when you cut your driving in half, you also cut that external risk in half.

This type of risk mitigation is vastly cheaper than the technological solution and also more effective (ie, the technological solution can at best asymptotically approach--at greater and greater cost--the benefits of simply not driving those miles). This is the basic reason that the U.S. dramatically lags behind other developed countries in its proportion of automobile fatalities and injuries. The U.S. takes the technological approach and "let's spend our way to safety" whereas other developed countries have far less automobile miles driven per capita--and they meet people's transportation needs in other ways that are inherently safer per trip and mile traveled. These include walking, bicycling, public transit, passenger rail, etc.

Point is, even if you must drive to certain destinations and thus will own a car and use it quite frequently, if your goal is to maximize your family's safety, you would do well to invest some proportion of your time and money into minimizing the automobile trips you take and maximizing your possibilities for other ways of making those trips.

Just for example, in the U.S. roughly 30% of trips are one mile or less, 40% two miles or less, and 60% three miles or less.

One mile is easy walking distance, so the first thing you do is set up to walk for every trip one mile or less. This actual takes some equipment and some planning, especially if you have children. You need everything from shoes to cold weather gear to strollers or child carts that you can stand to push for more than 50 feet. You can do a good bit of your shopping on foot if you have some kind of a cart to carry both the kids and your purchases (and a place to shop within a mile or so walk).

2-3 miles is easy bicycling distance. But of course you'll need a bicycle, various bicycle equipment, a bike trailer that can carry the kids and their stuff.

Then of course there is public transit.

This all sounds pie in the sky if you aren't oriented towards doing this already, but I did this when we had small kids at home (twins no less) and I can *highly* recommend it. We walked and then (later) bicycled almost everywhere--eliminated probably 80% of driving trips. It was good for me and very good for the kids.

The point I'm making from your point of view is, I could have tried to maximize safety by spending the max on a the newest "safest" automobile and then driving everywhere in it. But we found different way that was both less expensive and safer.

Additionally, if you are worried about safety there is also health to worry about, and the "walk/bike/public transit as much as you reasonable can" approach has some rather huge health benefits that driving everywhere via automobile just doesn't have.

So, a bit of a different perspective but one worth thinking about. Again it's not either/or but a question of finding a balance between spending time and money on one particular approach to safety versus finding the optimal balance between different approaches.

Just spending more money on the latest and greatest technological fix is not always the most productive approach overall, even though they always have stats and charts to "prove" it is.
posted by flug at 11:00 AM on February 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

I question the recommendation for reducing risk by reducing driving by replacing it with biking. What happens to the typical two-car fender bender if one of them is a bicyclist and you're him? Even if the number of accidents per mile goes down (and I have no idea if it does), the seriousness of any accident seems to increase greatly.

As for backup cameras, they're nice for not backing over the neighbor kids or dogs, but they are truly SUPER for parallel parking. With a backup camera I fling my somewhat-longer new car into tiny spaces with careless abandon. In fairness, it is much easier to park a bicycle than a car...
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:58 PM on February 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

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