Safety Tips for Buying a Car

Are you or your family in the market for a new set of wheels? Think safety first! As you stroll through the car lot looking at the newest models, or even used vehicles, keep the following list of safety features in mind:

Structural Design

Many different models look similar, but have key differences in their structural design. You will want one that offers a strong compartment for passengers, and front and rear bumpers designed to buckle and bend to absorb the force of a serious crash. Familiarize yourself with crash test results and see how the model of your choice stands up to another maker's model. One good place to start your research is at the website which provides 5-star safety ratings.

Seat Belts

It is a given that any vehicle you consider buying will have seat belts. Seat belts can be instrumental in protecting your family in the event of a crash. When you are car shopping, here are some of the seat belt features you may want to consider:

  • Are the shoulder belts adjustable? It will be more comfortable and safer for you and your passengers if you can change the shoulder strap height.
  • Does the rear seat offer shoulder belts? This provides extra safety, especially for children who are riding in booster seats.
  • Do the seat belts have energy management features? These features allow the seat belts to have some slack in them to prevent too much force on the chest area during a serious crash.

The outlines which states have seat belt laws and how they are applied.

Air Bags

You have probably heard pros and cons about air bags. Air bags are designed to work best in combination with seat belts. They inflate in moderate to severe crashes to help protect the occupant's upper body and head from striking the inside of the car. Airbags are located in the front and side of the car.

Air bags are not beneficial for all passengers. Small children or babies in car seats can be injured or even killed by front seat air bags. You should never put a rear-facing car seat in the front seat of a car with an air bag. Children under the age of 13 should ride only in the rear seats, and that they should be buckled up no matter where they are sitting.

For the practical purposes of choosing a family vehicle, it is unlikely you will choose one without a rear seat. However, your life situation may call for a pickup truck, which may not have a rear seat. If you need to put a car seat in the front of that pickup truck, and it has airbags, then you may request an on-off airbag switch for safety purposes.

Another consideration: the safest position for the driver is 10 inches (25 centimeters) away from the airbag. As you head out on a test drive, slide your seat back to the furthest comfortable point and see if you have 10 inches (25 centimeters) between yourself and the bag. On a related note, some car models offer side airbags that also offer head protection.

Daytime Running Lights

You may only think of turning on your running lights when it turns dusk, but some vehicles offer automatic daytime running lights. Having running lights might help other drivers see you better. Keep in mind that you will still need to turn on your headlights for night driving. At this time, daytime running lights are not mandated to be on cars in the US.

Antilock Brakes

Antilock brakes are a common feature on many vehicles. If you buy a car with this feature, be sure you know how to use them properly to avoid accidents. Make sure that all the drivers in your family are familiar with antilock brakes and how to use them because they work differently than standard brakes. Antilock brakes require firm, continuous pressure when your car starts to skid. Standard brakes need to be pumped gently.

Tire Pressure Monitoring System

All cars model year 2008 and later are required to have a tire pressure monitoring system installed (TPMS). TPMS alerts the driver when the tire pressure drops below a prespecified level. If you purchase a used car, make sure you know whether or not it is equipped with direct or indirect TPMS.

Information on tire ratings can be found on the website.

Car Seat Safety

Some vehicles offer built-in child car seats, but you will need to check the weight and height limits because they vary. If you choose to install a car seat, make sure you find out how to install it properly and learn how to buckle your baby correctly into the seat for maximum security. All cars made after September 2002 have a LATCH system that makes installing the car seat easier.

After you pick up your new car, you can find someone to help you install and use the car seat properly. If you installed the car seat yourself, you can get a certified technician to inspect it for you. The has a comprehensive list of inspectors by state.


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
US Department of Transportation


Transport Canada


Buying a safer car for child passengers 2010: a guide for parents. Safer Car website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated July 2010. Accessed July 27, 2017.
Car seats. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed July 27, 2017.
Checklist and tips for safe winter driving. Safer Car website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed July 27, 2017.
Lower anchors and tethers for children (LATCH) restraint system. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. Available at: Accessed July 27, 2017.
Seat belts. Governors Highway Safety Association website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed July 27, 2017.
Tire pressure monitoring system. Safer Car website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed July 27, 2017.
Last reviewed July 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 10/15/2013

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