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If you are shopping for a new car, put safety first. Personal injury lawyers are intimately familiar with the tragic results of vehicle collisions. Our hearts go out to family members as they grieve the loss of a loved one who died in a car crash. We understand what it means for accident victims to endure the serious injuries that collisions too often produce. When we see accident victims suffering from paralysis, brain injuries, burns, or other serious injuries, we wonder whether the accident or injuries could have been avoided if they had been driving a safer car.

Manufacturers and safety

During the early years of automotive manufacturing, car companies gave little thought to making safety a priority in vehicle design. Basic safety features that car owners take for granted were absent from early models. The first turn signals, for example, did not appear until they were added to Buicks in 1937. Rearview mirrors, back-up lights, and windshield wipers were all added to car designs as the automotive industry evolved.

Seatbelts were available in the 1940s but Ford did not offer them as an option until 1955. Ford’s advertising promoted seatbelts in an effort to induce car buyers to purchase them, but Congress did not require automakers to add lap belts to front seats until 1966.

By the 1950s, the most notorious examples of unsafe cars were known as “rattling deathtraps.” In the 1960s, Ralph Nader gained fame for exposing the rollover concerns in the Chevrolet Corvair. Even into the 1970s, car makers made safety a low priority. A design defect that caused the Ford Pinto to explode in rear-end collisions could have been remedied at a cost of about $50 per vehicle, but Ford decided it would be more cost-effective to let people die than to fix the problem.

While airbags are universally recognized as the most important car safety innovation since the seatbelt, auto manufacturers were unwilling to incur the added production costs of adding them as standard equipment. The first federal proposal to mandate airbags died in 1981 after car companies fought against it for nearly ten years. Airbag legislation did not pass until 1991. The law gave car manufacturers until 1997 and truck manufacturers until 1998 to equip new vehicles with airbags.

Safety improvements in modern cars

As highways proliferated and cars became faster, death rates from traffic accidents climbed. Fatal accidents peaked in the late 1970s. Restraint systems, including shoulder harnesses and seatbelt laws, accounted for much of the reduction in fatalities. Improvements in the crashworthiness of vehicles, including the addition of “crumple zones” that fold like an accordion during head-on collisions, also began to protect occupants from serious injury and death.

Other safety features on modern cars are designed to help drivers avoid collisions. Antilock brakes and electronic stability control help drivers maintain control during emergency braking. Both of those safety innovations began as optional equipment. Newer versions of antilock brakes, typically available only as an option, vary the amount of force applied to each brake or increase the force of braking during “panic” stops.

Other options that improve safety might one day become standard equipment. Until then, if you are planning to buy a new car, here are some things to look for:

  • Side impact airbags. While airbags that protect from a head-on collision are standard equipment, side impact airbags are only available on some cars, often as an option. The airbags that offer the best protection from head injuries caused by “T-bone” collisions are mounted in the head rails.
  • Inflatable seat belts. Offered as an option in second-row seating on some larger vehicles, inflatable seat belts expand like a small airbag in a collision, spreading the force of a crash over a larger area of the occupant’s body.
  • Forward collision warning systems. Sensors that operate like radar detect slower moving vehicles or fixed objects ahead and warn the driver if there is a risk of collision. Some systems incorporate automatic braking that activates when the threat of a crash is imminent.
  • Adaptive cruise control. Like forward collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control uses sensors to determine whether the vehicle is approaching a slower moving vehicle at an unsafe speed. If cruise control is active, the vehicle will automatically slow to avoid the risk of collision.
  • Lane departure warning systems. Sensors detect the vehicle’s movement out of its traffic lane and, unless a turn signal has been activated, warn the driver of a lane departure. Less common are lane keeping systems that adjust steering to keep the vehicle in the center of the lane or to prevent it from drifting into a different lane.
  • Blind spot detection. Sensors mounted to outside mirrors detect approaching vehicles that enter the car’s blind spot and warn the driver. The systems help prevent collisions during lane changes.
  • Rollover prevention systems. Rollovers are a risk when cars and trucks corner at excessive speeds. Sensors in rollover prevention system help avoid that risk by reducing the vehicle’s speed if it is cornering too quickly.

Other options you might want to consider include rearview cameras, enhanced headlight systems, and tire pressure monitors. Whether you are buying a new or a used car, you should also consider the safety ratings that various car models have been awarded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Safe drivers are the key to accident avoidance

Almost all car accidents are caused by negligent driving. Some acts of careless driving, including racing or driving under the influence of alcohol, are egregious. Other acts, like dialing a cellphone or applying makeup while driving, seem harmless until they result in a collision.

As personal injury lawyers, we have daily encounters with the victims of serious traffic accidents. We help victims receive compensation to replace lost income, to pay their medical bills, and to improve their lives, but no amount of compensation can restore the ability to walk. Money does not replace a lost life. It does not make severe pain go away.

We do everything we can to help accident victims live better lives and to assure that families of wrongful death victims receive the compensation they deserve, but we would be happier if accidents never occurred. Buying the safest car you can afford is one way to protect yourself from a serious injury or death, but obeying traffic laws and driving cautiously is the best way to avoid accidents that might end your life or the lives of other drivers.