There are easy-to-reference resources that can guide you to the safest possible set of wheels without having to enroll in a mechanical engineering degree or sell the farm
Lane Keep Assist. Anti-lock Braking System. ANCAP star ratings. Electronic Stability Control. Curtain air bags. Active Blind Spot Protection. Autonomous Emergency Braking.
The advancement of car safety technology is helping save more lives on our roads. Yet it has also created a traffic jam of baffling new terminology and acronyms. Choosing the best possible features for you and your budget is every bit as tricky as deciphering a text from your 17-year-old niece.
But fear not; whether you're on the hunt for a new or used car, there are easy-to-reference resources that can guide you in the direction of the safest possible set of wheels.
Europeans do it better
It's common knowledge that high-end European brands such as BMW and Mercedes have led the way in car safety technology and testing for decades. These manufacturers will offer the latest and greatest features as standard to help keep you and your family safe, but whether you are able finance such a purchase is another matter. (You should also check that these features haven't been removed when imported to Australia.) However, there are simple online tools for assessing the models that do fall within your means.
Can't beat brand new
Each year, the bar is being raised for car manufacturers to meet new levels of safety excellence. The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) gives consumers an independent assessment of the safety features offered by almost every new make and model hitting the showroom floor.
"Anyone in the market for a new vehicle should look for one that holds the maximum five-star safety rating," says ANCAP CEO James Goodwin.
And the good news is that 87% of new cars sold in the past six months scored the maximum rating.
"This is an excellent result when we compare that to years previous," says Goodwin. "With about 1.1 million new cars sold in Australia every year, that's a significant number that are entering the market with that high level of safety."
Such is the modern focus of car manufacturers on safety, from January to June 2016, only about 1 per cent of vehicles sold rated as three stars or less.
Seeing stars: how do I decide?
With so many cars receiving five-star ANCAP ratings, how does one go about choosing between maximum-rated models? Affordability is clearly a factor, but aside from a breakdown and score for each safety category on the car (such as side impact, whiplash protection and pedestrian-friendly design), ANCAP also publishes a date stamp to show when its assessment was completed, which is crucial.
"You might be looking at Car A which is five-star but it comes with a 2011 date stamp, so it was assessed when criteria were less stringent than they are today," says Goodwin. "Then if you look at Car B, which may also be five-star but it's just been released this year and has been assessed to our current requirements and holds a 2016 date stamp.
"So we can compare those two; they're both five-star cars, but our recommendation would be for the consumer to purchase the car with the latest 2016 date stamp, because it's been tested to a higher safety standard."
Using your resources
Those in the market for a second-hand vehicle can access the HowSafeIsYourCar.com.au website. It provides extensive ANCAP and Used Car Safety Ratings (UCSR) based on statistics from car crashes across Australian and New Zealand from 1990 to 2013 where someone was killed or seriously injured.
Again, vehicles are scored on how well their safety features hold up in emergency situations; information that can be critical to you and your family staying safe on the roads.
An eye to the future
"Future technology" is a loose term in car safety circles for a feature that is on the scene but yet to become standard on most major models. In many cases, it is still user-pays. Two highly effective and important features being promoted by ANCAP are Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) and lane support systems (LSS). Both are umbrella terms with some naming variations across manufacturers.
"AEB is an emergency braking technology where the car itself will detect an obstruction in front and prevent you from either running up the back of a vehicle, or at least slow you down so that the injuries sustained or damage from the crash is less that it would have been," says Goodwin. "That's definitely one that we would recommend consumers would look for in addition to the five-star safety rating - ask the dealers, 'Does the car have AEB?'"
Studies conducted in recent times have shown AEB can reduce fatal crashes and rear-end crashes by 25 to 30 per cent.
The second relatively new technology, lane support systems, is where the vehicle can identify line markings on the road and holds you within that lane to keep you from drifting.
"This can include blind spot monitoring, where if you indicate and go to change lanes, the car can detect if there's another vehicle in the lane beside you that you haven't seen, and it will either beep or hold you in that lane, depending on the sophistication of the system."
"With an active lane support system, if you fall asleep or simply lose concentration and drift out of that lane, it will pull you back into the lane," says Goodwin.
ANCAP is pushing for these technologies to become standard safety features on all new vehicles in the near future to be able to achieve a five-star safety rating. However in the meantime, they are certainly worth investigating at purchase.
"Sometimes manufacturers can bundle these together with an infotainment upgrade, sunroof upgrade or leather seat upgrade. It does vary depending on the brand. Consumers should consider these safety features as an important investment."
Other handy hints: bigger is better, white stands out
Don't believe what they tell you - size does matter when it comes to car safety. Basically, the bigger the vehicle, the better protection you will receive in a crash.
And the colour of your car also plays a part in your risk of having an accident. Studies have shown that particularly in daylight hours, black vehicles are more likely to be involved in a crash. So if safety over style is the way you want to roll, white cars actually carry the lowest accident risk, regardless of the lighting conditions.