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Selecting a safer vehicle is a lot easier than it used to be.

Most new cars, minivans, pickups and SUVs perform well in a range of crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), as well as the federal government. Still, some models could do a better job of protecting people in rollovers, rear crashes and certain front crashes. Crash avoidance technology is available on many mainstream and luxury models, so safety-conscious buyers also should look for these systems when weighing options.

Whether you are in the market for a new or used vehicle, here are some things to consider:

  • Vehicle size and weight matter. Smaller, lighter vehicles generally offer less protection than larger, heavier ones. There is less structure to absorb crash energy, so deaths and injuries are more likely. People in lighter vehicles also experience higher crash forces when struck by heavier vehicles. If safety is a major consideration, pass up very small, light vehicles.
  • A crashworthy design reduces death and injury risk. Structure and restraints help determine crashworthiness. Good structure means a strong occupant compartment, crumple zones to absorb the force of a serious crash, side structure to manage the force of a striking vehicle or struck object and a strong roof that won't collapse in a rollover. Safety belts keep people in their seats and spread crash forces across the upper body's stronger bony parts. Airbags protect people from hitting things inside the vehicle or objects outside it.
2017 Buick Envision small overlap test 2017 TOP SAFETY PICK+ award 2017 TOP SAFETY PICK award

Look for vehicles that earn IIHS Top Safety Pick+ or Top Safety Pick, plus at least 4 of 5 stars from NHTSA.

Vehicle ratings and crash tests

A good place to start your research is with our vehicle ratings. IIHS rates new models based on how well they protect people in front, side, rollover and rear crashes. IIHS also evaluates the performance of headlights and front crash prevention systems with automatic braking. Models with the highest ratings qualify for an IIHS safety accolade.

To win either IIHS award, vehicles must earn good ratings in the small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests and also earn an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention. To earn the highest award, Top Safety Pick+, models also must have good- or acceptable-rated headlights.

Pedestrian detection

Pedestrian detection

High-beam assist

High-beam assist

Find vehicles with crash avoidance features here. See headlight and front crash prevention ratings by make and model here.

NHTSA also identifies models with advanced features such as lane departure warning, forward collision warning and rearview cameras.

Front crash prevention with autobrake

Front crash prevention with autobrake

Adaptive headlights

Adaptive headlights

Crash avoidance technologies

Protecting people in crashes is vital. Avoiding them altogether is ideal. Crash avoidance systems can help. Most automakers offer them on 2017 models. So far two features — front crash prevention and adaptive headlights — are reducing crashes, based on HLDI analysis of insurance losses.

Front crash prevention systems include forward collision warning and autobrake. Warning systems alert you if you get too close to a car in front. Autobrake systems can brake if you don't respond in time. Curve-adaptive headlights shift direction as you steer to help you see better on curves in the dark. High-beam assist technology automatically switches between high beams and low beams. Lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist and blind-spot detection are other technologies intended to help drivers avoid crashes. So far, IIHS and HLDI haven't been able to quantify their benefits.

Buying a used vehicle

If a brand-new car isn't in your budget, keep in mind that late-model vehicles in general are safer than older ones. Our list of recommended used vehicles for teenagers is a good resource for drivers of any age. Here are some tips for choosing a previously owned vehicle:

  • Frontal crashworthiness — Look for good ratings in frontal crash tests. Most newer models earn top marks for frontal crashworthiness in the federal government's 35 mph test head-on into a rigid barrier and the IIHS 40 mph moderate overlap test into a deformable barrier. Many but not all late-model vehicles earn acceptable or good ratings from IIHS for protection in a small overlap front crash.
  • Used car buyer Test modes

    Find models with side airbags and ESC and look up crash test ratings and prior years' award winners.

  • Side crashworthiness — Choose a vehicle with good side ratings plus side airbags that protect your head. IIHS and NHTSA rate models based on tests that simulate front-into-side crashes. The tests represent different side-impact dangers. Drivers of vehicles with good ratings in the IIHS side-barrier test are 70 percent less likely to die in a driver-side crash compared with drivers in vehicles rated poor. The majority of 2008 and newer models have side airbags as standard equipment.
  • Roof strength — Look for a strong roof. IIHS rates roof strength to help consumers pick vehicles with roofs that will hold up in a rollover crash. Strong roofs reduce the risk of fatal or incapacitating injury in a rollover. Ratings began with 2008-09 models.
  • Head restraints — Pick a model with a good seat/head restraint rating to reduce whiplash injuries in a rear-end collision. Vehicles with seat/head restraint combinations rated good by IIHS have 15 percent fewer insurance claims for neck injuries than vehicles with poor ratings. You can help increase protection by adjusting the head restraint to correctly fit your head.
  • Electronic stability control — Buy a vehicle with ESC. It's standard on 2012 and newer models and available on many earlier ones. An extension of antilock brake technology, ESC engages automatically to help drivers maintain control on curves and slippery roads. ESC lowers the risk of a fatal single-vehicle crash by about half and the risk of a fatal rollover by as much as 80 percent.
  • Recalls — Check the NHTSA site for recalls before buying, and make sure repairs are made.