You know you’ve hear it from others, you may even say it yourself: “I have kids I need a safe car!” This is the mantra for people trying to justify why they have payments on a car. At first it seems like a legitimate excuse. After all, it’s the safety of our kids we are talking about right?
I believe there’s a bit of insanity surrounding this notion that only a new car is safe. If you are considering a 45 year old car from the early 70’s as your beater, then you are right, the safety advancements have been tremendous and all you need to do is a google video search for “old vs new car crash tests“. But for $1-2k, you should be be able to find a 10-20 year old car (mid-late 90’s – early 2000’s) in good enough mechanical shape to get you by for now. You should easily be able to find a car manufactured between 1995-2004 within that price range with a simple Craigslist search in your area (depending on manufacture of course, BMW and Audi is probably not on the list, but Kia, Honda, Hyundai, Ford, Chevy, etc should be). Trust me! I’ve done it a few times already and I’ll be sure to do another post about the vehicles I’ve had and currently have.
The IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) has some good information on this topic, so be sure to go read all about it if you want. I grabbed one chart they have on their site from this page: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/general-statistics/fatalityfacts/overview-of-fatality-facts
It would be hard (maybe impossible) to argue that vehicles are not safer now than they were before. I work in the “big data” field and know the old adage about how data can be manipulated and presented in ways. So, I’m going to point out a few facts and let you make your own decisions, but it’ll probably be obvious where my bias is (I believe vehicles that are 15-20 years old are still ‘safe’).
There has been a fairly dramatic decrease in vehicle fatalities from 1980 to about 1991. The total deaths as well as per 100 million miles have gone down dramatically in that time. The per 100 million miles data continues on a downward trend ever since, but not nearly as dramatically as it was during the 80s. Part of this increase in safety could be attributed to traffic safety laws, the “Click it or Ticket” campaign, the crackdown on drunk/impaired driving, etc. All those things likely had an affect on these numbers as well, it was not solely safety features of vehicles.
The total deaths had another dramatic drop around 2007-2009, even though there was a very small decrease comparatively to the per 100 million miles graph. BusinessInsider has an article they published in 2013 discussing how the number of miles driven per year were at a new “post-crisis” (2008) low: http://www.businessinsider.com/vehicle-miles-driven-2013-2 With less miles being driven, you would expect a lower number of total deaths since the two are heavily correlated.
So, here’s the kicker… the average age of cars on the road is 11.8years old. Which means, when new safety features are introduced in mass to the majority of new vehicles being made, it takes 11.8 years before we realize the full effects of those features on these charts, there will be a gradual build towards full adoption on the road, which doesn’t peak until 11.8 years later. The US Federal government mandated seat belts to be in all new vehicles starting on January 1st, 1968. Assuming back then it was still approximately 12 years for the average age of cars on the road, this would bring us to the 1980’s drop in deaths visible on the charts. The next major safety advancement was the airbag, that the Federal government mandated to be in all vehicles by 1998. However, manufactures had started competing in the markets by this point based on safety ratings, so some had started including them years before the mandate. Based on that same 12 years, this brings you to 2000 for what can be considered that same point where the majority of vehicles would have them. The more gradual adoption into airbags by companies and the gradual addition of more and more airbags ever since (passenger, side impact, etc) could account for the continued and gradual decrease in fatalities.
What does all this mean? You make up your mind, but for me, the now gradual decline in fatalities is likely to continue and likely slow it’s decrease down for the near future. At least until another major safety feature becomes standard in vehicles, because there really has not been anything since airbags. I believe the next major advancement is looking to be self driving cars. The current decrease as mentioned earlier could be partially due to laws and enforcement, but the marketing teams of those car manufacturers would love for you to believe it’s ALL due to their advancements in frame designs. Better yet, it means that my suggestion of a 10-20 year old car (especially if you skirt the 10 year mark) means that statistically, there’s relatively little difference between the new and “old” cars on the road today from a safety standpoint.