Does size matter? Safety and the small car

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Buying a car is a big deal – it’s probably the second biggest purchase you’ll ever make (behind buying a house!).

So as well as thinking carefully about fuel economy, performance, reliability and everything else, you really should first of all consider the safety of the model you’re considering.

There are two ways that you can find out about the safety of the ride you’d like.

Firstly, there’s a program called ANCAP which crash tests new cars on the market.

Using high tech crash testing facilities, ANCAP smashes many types of cars every year and by using hu-tech crash test dummies they work out how occupants and pedestrians would have coped in each crash.

They then assign handy star ratings to each car and make all the info available online. Check the ANCAP website for results.

Not looking for a new car? The second way to find out about safety is to check used car safety ratings. While we’d all like a brand new car, it’s also good to know how older cars rate.

Big versus small

Michael Paine, ANCAP Technical Manager who is an automotive engineer, says small cars have generally been getting safer, with most new small cars now achieving the top 5-star ANCAP rating.

But the story isn’t a totally clear one – which is exactly why we have the ratings to help us out.

“Generally speaking big cars will do better in a collision with a smaller car. This is a result of the physics of the crash, where the heavier object will experience a lower deceleration and therefore lower forces on the occupants” Michael says. “But if your car hits a larger stationary object, then there’s a lot more weight in a larger car, which means more crash energy to deal with.”
“We’ve also seen things in crash testing like a couple of older model four-wheel-drives where the front tyre has nearly ended up against the driver's seat – the passenger compartment is the crush zone.” Ouch.

The bottom line is to do your homework and choose the safest car for your needs. If you live in the inner-city and a small car suits you, then buy the safest one you can afford.

“If you’re in a safe small car and have a collision, you’re going to be better off than driving a less safe larger car – particularly an older one without airbags,” says Michael.

And there are lots of safe small cars out there.

Bagging a winner

Michael says there have been lots of technical developments which have made cars safer – like clever design to ensure the engine bay crushes and absorbs the impact rather than the passenger compartment, advanced seatbelts and, of course, airbags.

Airbags are like a cross between a parachute and a cushion that inflate quickly in a collision, which stops people whacking their head into the hard interior of the car. You can get them on the front – driver only, or both front seats – and to cover the sides, both front and back seats (these are usually side curtain airbags). Obviously the more airbags you have, the safer you and your passengers will be.

It doesn’t have to be expensive to land yourself a car with airbags. Airbags started to become standard in cars from the late 1990s onwards, so these cars are over 10 years’ old.

Even in new cars the full airbag option doesn’t have to be super expensive. Michael points out that 

“Airbags make all the difference in a wide variety of crashes. For example, crash research has shown that for every 10 people who are killed in a side impact crash, five would have lived if there had been side airbags to protect the person's head."

With that stat in mind, it’s no surprise that Michael’s a big fan of front and side ‘curtain’ air bags.

Buy safe

So next time you're looking at a new car, go beyond how big and tough the car looks on the outside, and think about what cool tech is inside that could save you in a crash. Jump online and research the crash results and safety features of the various cars that suit your needs and make a smart choice.