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Finding your (safe) dream car

OK, you've decided buying a safe car is more important than a cool car, but how can you tell a safe car from a rolling death trap?

Here are some savvy tips from the experts:

  • Check crash-test ratings. You can check these with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

  • Heads up. Look for cars equipped with side-impact air bags that offer protection for the head. "These bags offer good protection based on our testing and analysis of accident statistics collected by the government," says David Zuby, vice president of the vehicle research center at IIHS.

  • Consider the speed-price factor. High-powered sports cars tend to have high fatality rates compared to lower-powered vehicles of similar size. "These vehicles tend to be driven by people who drive aggressively," Zuby says. "The higher the speed, the more likely a person will suffer serious injury or death in a crash." Conversely, the latest safety features tend to be introduced first in the higher-priced vehicles.

  • Go large. Size does matter and bigger generally is better. "Buy the largest vehicle of the type you're interested in and also look for a good crash rating from both IIHS and the government. The larger and heavier the vehicle you're riding, the less impact you will suffer," advises Zuby. The numbers backs up his views: Small cars have more than twice as many occupant deaths each year as large cars.

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  • Get the crush. Look for cars with big crush zones, the part of the car that should take the brunt of a collision. "Ideally, the area between the bumper and the firewall -- the panel that separates the engine from the occupant compartment -- will collapse first," Zuby says. Some have crush zones that are too stiff or too short. In serious crashes, these can lead to the collapse of the occupant compartment.

  • Handle with care. "Pick a car you can handle easily and see out of well," says Champion. "You must be comfortable with the size of the vehicle you're driving. Don't feel intimidated by a great big vehicle. Make sure there are no blind spots and the controls are easy to reach. There's nothing worse than having to look way down to change your climate control or change a station on the radio."

  • Load up on safety. Buy a vehicle with the most amount of safety equipment possible, regardless of the price, says Champion. Look for ABS brakes, side air bags and stability control devices which stop a car from sliding out of control. "It's especially useful for SUVs," Champion says.
  • -- Posted: Sept. 23, 2003

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