Most Important Safety Features for a Family Vehicle

If you're in the market for a family hauler, you'll no doubt want to know which safety features will most benefit you and your brood. Here are 10 we think you should consider:

  1. High crash test scores: Obviously, this isn't a safety feature per se, but crash test scores give crucial insight into the kind of protection offered by a vehicle. Specifically, look for a four- or five-star crash test rating (for both front- and side-impact tests) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and a "Good" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) for 40-mph frontal offset and side-impact tests. Of particular interest to family buyers, the side-impact test conducted by the IIHS is designed to measure the level of occupant protection when a vehicle is struck by an SUV or pickup truck. Crash test data may be researched on

  • Advanced frontal airbags: These airbag systems feature sensors which consider factors like occupant size, seat position and crash severity to determine the level at which driver frontal and passenger frontal airbags will inflate. Advanced frontal airbags are designed to be better than current airbags when it comes to saving lives; notably, this system also effectively reduces the risk of an airbag-related injury or death to children and small-framed adults. Read our article on front airbags to learn more.
  • Side-impact and side curtain airbags: Side-impact airbags are mounted in either the seat backs or doors and protect the torso during side-impact crashes. Generally, they are offered only for the front occupants (because of the potential injury risk to small rear occupants riding in child-safety seats), but some manufacturers give you the option to get them in the backseat as well. Side curtain airbags (also known as head curtain airbags) generally span the length of the cabin and provide head protection for outboard occupants in side-impact collisions. Side curtains also protect occupants in the event of a rollover, by helping to keep everyone inside the vehicle. Most injuries and fatalities in rollover crashes stem from ejection.
  • Antilock braking system (ABS): ABS prevents a vehicle's wheels from locking up by rapidly applying intermittent brake pressure. This system generally kicks in during heavy braking applications, but lighter braking on slick roads may also cause it to activate. There are two chief benefits to ABS: shorter stopping distances on slippery surfaces and the maintenance of steering control. A locked-up wheel (or wheels) will slide, and thus can't be steered, so the chance to steer around a potential collision is lost. Although an ABS-equipped vehicle won't always stop more quickly than those without, it will give the average driver more control in emergency situations. Auto manufacturers have perfected ABS over the years so that there isn't as much noise and vibration associated with its activation. Further, many have added supplemental features like BrakeAssist, which supplements the driver's braking effort with additional force to reduce stopping distances in emergency situations, and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, which distributes the braking power more evenly among wheels, again with the goal of reducing stopping distances.
  • Stability control: This is an important active safety system that uses sensors to monitor how closely your vehicle's path matches your intended path based on steering, throttle and brake inputs. When appropriate, such a system can apply braking forces to individual wheels and reduce engine power to prevent dangerous skids. Stability control can help the driver maintain control during emergency maneuvers, and is especially useful when piloting larger vehicles with a high center of gravity.
  • Child safety-seat compatibility: Again, not a safety feature per se but something that all parents of small children should have in mind when choosing a car. All 2002 and up vehicles come with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children) system in the backseat, which provides a more secure means of installation for child safety seats with tethers. Additionally, most vehicles come with ALR/ELR (Automatic Locking Retractor/Emergency Locking Retractor) seatbelts in the outboard positions, a seatbelt design that allows parents to lock down safety seats without tethers and provides an added measure of snugness for those that do. However, even if a prospective car has both the LATCH system and locking retractor seatbelts, it's important to bring your children's safety seats along on your test-drive. Check to see that there's enough clearance for rear facing seats and that the seat bottom is deep enough and flat enough to hold bulkier seats securely. If you're relying on the seatbelts to lock down a seat, make sure the belts don't leave unwanted slack after cinching down the seat.
  • Tire-pressure monitoring system: In most cases, when a tire fails, the cause is underinflation. A tire-pressure monitoring system uses a dashboard warning light to let the driver know when a tire doesn't have enough air to be driven on safely. Of course, even the best monitoring systems are no substitute for checking your tire pressure on a regular basis. Read our articles, "Tires: Traffic Safety Tips" and "Tire Safety: Don't Ignore the Rubber on the Road" for more information on tire safety.
  • Rear parking sensors or rear-mounted camera: In large vehicles such as minivans and SUVs, it's difficult to get a sense of what's behind you when you're backing up. This can be a dangerous problem if there are small children around, such as when you're picking up your child after school or sports practice. Rear parking sensors (sometimes called Rear Park Assist) ensure that you're made aware of objects behind you when the vehicle is in reverse. Usually, notification comes via audible beeps, but some systems use pillar-mounted light displays as well. Some manufacturers have gone a step beyond sensors by installing a rear-mounted camera that projects an image onto the vehicle's navigation screen whenever the vehicle in put in reverse.
  • Active head restraints: Often, rear-end collisions result in whiplash for the victim. Active head restraints serve to automatically close the gap between an occupant's head and the head restraint, and can help prevent neck injuries.
  • Automatic crash notification: If the worst happens and you and your family suffer an accident, you'll want to make sure that help comes as soon as possible. An onboard automatic crash notification system summons emergency assistance, and identifies your location to rescue personnel. The system can also be used for other types of roadside assistance, should you get a flat tire or breakdown. Current crash notification systems include OnStar (available in Acuras, Audis, Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Saabs and Volkswagens, to name a few), Lexus's Lexus Link, BMW's BMW Assist and Mercedes-Benz's TeleAid.