What Makes Cars Safer Right Now – Consumer Reports

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We tell you which cars and SUVs are among the safest and what to look for when buying a new or used model
Seat belts. Airbags, Antilock brakes. For decades, these familiar features were the mainstays of automotive safety. (Seat belts alone save about 15,000 lives on American roadways each year.) But an automotive safety revolution has been quietly taking place over the past decade, making today’s cars better than older models not only at protecting occupants in a crash but also at preventing one from happening in the first place. And if a collision does occur, many new vehicles can automatically call first responders for help.
“Today’s cars are safer than those from a decade or so ago in two main ways,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center. “First, they include many more ’passive’ safety features, such as advanced airbags, that help to protect the vehicle’s occupants and mitigate injuries if a crash occurs. They also have many more ’active’ safety features, such as automatic emergency braking, that can help drivers avoid crashes entirely.”
But many Americans aren’t benefiting from these safety advances because they’re driving older cars that don’t have them. The average age of vehicles on the road has risen to 12.2 years, according to the latest available data from S&P Global Mobility, a consulting firm. And vehicles more than a decade old may not have important safety features such as backup cameras, AEB, and even electronic stability control (ESC)—all technologies that have been proved to prevent crashes and reduce injuries.
“While holding on to an older car might make the best financial sense, there are real safety benefits to buying something newer,” says Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing. “Even less expensive newer cars now come standard with life-saving safety features.”
If you’re shopping for a new or used vehicle, we’ll walk you through the safety advances that you should be aware of and highlight the popular cars that excel at crash avoidance and occupant protection. We’ll also show you how to make the car you already own as safe as it can be, and help you decide whether it’s time to trade in an older vehicle for something safer.
See how Consumer Reports tests cars.
The safest cars today benefit from advancements in technology. We tell you what they are and how to get them.
A 2019 study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that automatic crash notification could save more than 700 lives each year if it were standard in all new vehicles.
How it works: If you’re in a crash and can’t call for help, most new cars feature automatic crash notification (ACN), which alerts first responders if it detects that the airbags have deployed or the car has been in a crash. It gives the GPS location of the vehicle, using either the car’s built-in cellular connection or a paired phone. Some ACN systems can even tell first responders what kinds of injuries to expect based on the severity of the crash—information that can save time when every second counts. In the past, most automakers charged a subscription fee for ACN, but a growing number are now offering it free on new cars—or for complimentary trial periods of up to 10 years.
How to get it: Find out if your car (or one you’re considering buying) has this technology at CR.org/acn. Go to the automaker’s website or ask your dealership to confirm that the feature is active on your vehicle; some systems lost access to ACN when cellular providers shut down their 3G networks last year.
Sign CR’s petition to tell automakers to stop charging extra for this safety feature.
NHTSA estimated that electronic stability control saved nearly 1,600 lives in a single year shortly after the technology became mandatory on vehicles.
What it is: Electronic stability control (ESC) uses sensors to monitor wheel speed, steering angle, and sideways motion and automatically adjusts the brakes and engine power to help keep the vehicle on its intended path. This can prevent a driver from sliding or skidding during a turn. It’s especially useful for tall, top-heavy vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks. In 2012, ESC became mandatory on all new cars sold in the U.S. It was optional on some vehicles before then, but there are still plenty of older cars that lack this important safety feature.
“In our tests, we found cars with ESC to be far easier to control in an emergency,” Fisher says. “The electronics do an incredible job of preventing a car from spinning out, allowing the driver to concentrate on just steering the car to avoid a crash. In bad weather, the results are even more dramatic.”
How to get it: If you’re driving a car without ESC, you should consider replacing it with one that has this lifesaving feature. A used car that’s 10 years old or newer that also scores well in safety ratings from NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) will do the trick. “The safest car isn’t just the biggest one that surrounds you with the most metal, but one that provides both good crash protection and is easy to maneuver or stop in an emergency,” Fisher says.
A frontal crash is 12 percent less likely to be fatal if you’re driving a car with a Good score in IIHS’ small overlap crash test than if you’re driving one with a Poor score.
How it works: Both NHTSA and IIHS perform crash tests and issue ratings. But IIHS crash tests have become tougher over the past decade, and automakers have improved vehicle design to earn top scores, says CR’s Stockburger. For example, in 2012 IIHS introduced a test to see how well cars protect occupants in a “small overlap” crash, an often deadly collision in which the front left corner of a car hits another vehicle or a stationary object. About 40 percent of vehicles scored a Poor in the first year of testing. But within three years, 13 manufacturers had redesigned 71 vehicle models to do better in the new test, and nearly all of them did, with structural improvements and restraints that do a better job of keeping occupants in place.
“Advanced seat belt and airbag designs are better at restraining occupants and reducing impacts with the vehicle interior,” Stockburger says. “Vehicle structures also now better manage crash forces and direct energy away from the occupants.”
How to get it: Buy vehicles that have a five-star overall rating from NHTSA and that also earned a Top Safety Pick award from IIHS. (Both ratings are available on the car model pages.)
Equipping all new cars with effective highway-speed AEB systems that can also detect pedestrians at night could save 362 lives and prevent over 24,000 injuries per year, according to NHTSA.
How it works: Using radar sensors mounted on the front of the car, AEB can detect a potential collision with a vehicle, pedestrian, or cyclist and automatically brake to prevent a crash or lessen its impact. AEB alone can reduce rear-end collisions by 50 percent, and AEB with pedestrian detection can reduce pedestrian crashes by 27 percent, according to IIHS, which is funded by the insurance industry.
Many cars built after 2015 and nearly all new vehicles feature some form of AEB, but some systems work only at speeds of 55 mph or below. And testing shows that some systems don’t work as well at night, when most fatal pedestrian crashes take place. The best systems stop for pedestrians and cyclists as well as other vehicles, work at highway speeds, and are effective after dark.
How to get it: Automakers have many different names for this technology, which can be confusing for car buyers. To see if AEB with pedestrian detection is standard equipment on a new or used vehicle you’re interested in buying, check CR’s car model pages. Look for versions that operate at both city and highway speeds, and check IIHS scores to see how well the feature performs.
Advanced seat belts are becoming more available in the back seat. Belt technologies have already cut crash fatality risk for drivers and front passengers by 12.8 percent in cars with front airbags.
How it makes cars safer: Front-seat occupants have typically benefited most from the latest automotive safety advances. But at the urging of safety advocates, including CR, automakers have started incorporating these features for rear passengers as well. They include seat belt pretensioners that tighten the belt at the onset of a crash to keep an occupant in place, and load limiters that reduce excessive belt force that might injure the occupant’s chest. These safety systems have already reduced the risk of crash fatalities by 12.8 percent for front occupants, according to NHTSA. Many newer cars also now have rear-occupant alerts that remind drivers to check the rear seat before exiting so that children aren’t left behind in hot cars, which could cause death from heatstroke. They also have rear seat belt minders that alert the driver when someone in the back isn’t buckled up or if they unbuckle their seat belt during a trip.
“Rear passengers can range from infants to older adults, so the safety systems that are implemented back there need to work effectively for all of them,” says Emily Thomas, PhD, manager of auto safety at CR’s Auto Test Center.
What you can do: Car shoppers should look at CR’s rear-seat safety score on the vehicle model page to see what safety systems are offered, and check IIHS moderate overlap test scores for rear-occupant protection. If your car has a rear-occupant alert, turn it on. Make sure rear-seat occupants are always buckled up, even on short trips. Kids under 13 should always sit in the rear seat, and use the right car seat or booster for their age, height, and weight.
We found 10 new vehicles priced at or under $40,000 that are at the cutting edge of safety. Each has:
• A 2023 Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
• An Acceptable or Good score in IIHS’ new side impact test
Free (or at least a 10-year free trial of) automatic crash notification available on some trim levels
• At least a 4 out of 5 in both CR’s braking test, which measures how long it takes to stop from 60 to 0 mph, and our avoidance maneuver test, which measures how fast a vehicle can safely travel while swerving to avoid an obstacle
• A standard automatic emergency braking system that scores either Advanced or Superior in IIHS’ nighttime pedestrian detection testing
Note: IIHS modified its moderate overlap test last year to evaluate the level of protection for rear-seat passengers. Most vehicles have not yet undergone this new test. Of those that have, we have excluded vehicles that scored Poor or Marginal. We have also excluded vehicles that got a low score in CR’s own rear-seat safety evaluation, if tested.
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