The Safest Cars on the Road: Why Light, Fuel Efficient, Rather than Older, Heftier Cars are Safer

Safest Cars
This crashed Honda HRV is among the Safest Cars

New technology and materials have your back.

A few years back, Kevin Hart and two friends suffered an awful car crash in California. They were in Kevin’s vintage Plymouth, which plunged down an embankment on a hilly road. Luckily they all survived, but the photos of the damage are chilling. The car’s roof was crushed, and it’s a miracle the three survived.

This crash demonstrates the misnomer that many parents, who want the safest cars for their kids, believe: Older, heavier cars built with lots of steel are safer for new drivers. My friend Jesse is just such a parent. Shopping for a used car for his teen daughter, a newly minted driver, he wanted something older and safer.

“New cars are so flimsy,” he said. “I want an old Mercedes-Benz, a tank that will surround her with heavy metal.”

While I’d be the last to poo-poo the appeal of a vintage Mercedes, a classic car isn’t necessarily a safer car. In many instances, they are far less safe than cars built in the last few years. In fact, our cars are twice as safe today as they were 10 years ago, and they continue to get safer every year. Here’s why, and what you need to know.

Safest Cars

The Honda Civic that was crash tested during our visit to the Honda Research and Development Center. Notice that the passenger cabin is in tact. Even the doors opened following the test, which is by design. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Light on the Outside, Solid on the Inside

Close a trunk or thump the panel on a new car’s door. You may hear a thin, hollow sound. That’s because today’s cars are built with a mix of metals and composite materials. Their frames, panels and parts such as bumpers, mirrors and framework are often made of a strong molded composite plastic. They may have aluminum door panels, hood panels and trunk panels.

But without question, car and truck frames are built with ultra-high strength steel. The passenger compartment is a ‘cage’ surrounded by steel that is designed to maintain its integrity and protect its passengers in a crash.

Parts are Designed to Crush and Bend—So Passengers Don’t

Researchers have worked to understand where the energy goes in an impact, as we learned when touring the Honda Research and Development Center in Ohio. By testing all sorts of crash circumstances, they can understand how to divert the energy of a crash and pass it along to a part that will absorb it. Brilliant, right?

Safest Cars

Honda safety engineer Brian Bautsch shows how different grades of steel function to keep passengers safe in a crash. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Steel Has Evolved to Bend, Sway and Protect

We think of steel as the strongest, most reliable material in our cars. But it’s so much more than that. As our cars and designs have evolved, so has steel. Steel makers have developed more than 80 grades of steel used in cars, from ultra-high strength steel that is also super thin, to flexible, bendable grades that can transfer the impact of a crash away from passengers and pedestrians.

Honda safety engineer Brian Bautsch showed us how the different grades of steel are designed to perform differently in a crash: Some will remain in tact. Others will crush like an accordion. Others will splinter and move the impact away from key areas like the passenger compartment and the engine compartment. All to keep passengers and bystanders safe.

New Technology Protects the Engine, Too

One of the most devastating, and expensive, parts of a car crash is damage done to the engine. An engine can cause additional harm to pedestrians. They can leak dangerous fluids or even catch fire. Of course, engines are expensive to repair or replace. So, steel engine compartments are generally designed to remain in tact to protect the engine.

During our visit to Honda’s R&D center, we witnessed a crash test. The results of the test showed how the engine stayed in tact, and the frame of the engine compartment shifted as it took the impact of the crash.

Active Safety Features and Driver Assistance Technologies Reduce Crashes

And, they can reduce the cost of owning a car.

Think about this: If you buy a safety package upgrade for $1500, is it worth the investment? Even if you carry a $500 insurance deductible, it could be. That $500, plus the increase in your insurance premiums after a crash, plus things that are not covered while your car is being repaired can add up to more than the cost of the safety features.

Features to look for include:

  • Adaptive cruise control, which means the car is equipped with cameras that are watching traffic around you
  • Emergency braking; cameras will monitor traffic for potential crashes, and if the driver doesn’t brake, the car will brake for you
  • Lane departure assist (sometimes called lane tracing), which will assist you in keeping your car centered in its lane
  • Automatic high beams adjust the brightness of your high-beam headlights when pedestrians or other vehicles are in your path

Additionally, all cars built after 2016 should have a rearview camera and blind-spot monitors.

Our roads are more crowded, and we are more distracted drivers. But cars that see around us, assist us with driving and protect us in a crash are not just the future, but what we want for everyone we love.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss