13 safest cars of 2007

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3 aspects of car safety
Car safety comes in three flavors:
Passive safety features, such as seatbelts and airbags
Active safety features, designed to help avoid crashes
Design features that absorb crash energy and protect occupants

Passive safety
When most people think safety features, typically the first things that come to mind are airbags and seatbelts. While they are important features, many people don't realize that all seatbelts and airbags aren't created equal.

The newest generation of airbags, for instance, uses sensors in the seat to judge the size of the passenger and adjusts its force accordingly. This can be a big advantage in the case of a small passenger who might be injured by a full-force airbag deployment.

The location of the airbags also makes a big difference. One of the biggest lifesavers is side-curtain airbags. These airbags, which can be mounted in the side of the seat, in the ceiling, in the doorpost or even in the door itself, offer several types of protection for the occupants.

First, they help in the case of a rollover, Linkov says.

"What happens is the vehicle senses you are about to roll over and it deploys the side curtain airbags. Those then keep your head, torso and arms inside the vehicle and out of harm's way," he says.

The inflating cushion also helps shield you from flying debris that might otherwise do serious damage in a side-impact accident.

This is especially important because, unlike in a head-on or a rear-end accident, where you have a lot of steel between you and the other vehicle, in a side crash, all you have is a thin car door protecting you.

Russ Rader, spokesman for the IIHS, said the benefits are so profound that no vehicle tested by the IIHS has performed well or earned a good rating in the side impact test without side airbags.

Like improved airbags, a seatbelt isn't just a seatbelt anymore. The new generation of seatbelts offers features that help protect passengers more efficiently by using features like energy management and pretensioners, which sense an accident and pull back on the belts to get the passengers into safer positions.

Active safety
The biggest breakthrough in automotive safety over the past few years has been in the features designed to actively avoid accidents in the first place. These include things such as blind spot warning systems that use cameras and sensors to scan your surroundings and sound an alarm if you begin changing lanes while someone is lurking beyond your field of vision. A similar gadget scans the lane ahead of you and begins buzzing if you begin to drift out of your lane -- a handy tool on long, monotonous road trips where you might be prone to drifting off to sleep.

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