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How to find the safest car for your family

Pick a ride that protects those who matter most to you.

There’s a lot to think about when buying a car — how much you want to spend, whether to opt for new or used, which brand and model to choose. And when you factor your family in to the car-buying decision, even more considerations come in to play — like safety ratings and comfort.

What are IIHS safety ratings?

Around since 1959, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been providing consumers with information about how safe specific vehicles are. It does this by analyzing both how well the car protects occupants in a crash — called crashworthiness — and how well it avoids or minimizes impact.

Crashworthiness is rated as poor, marginal, acceptable or good. And crash avoidance is rated as basic, advanced or superior.

Each year, IIHS releases its list of Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ vehicles. Either category requires cars to have an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention to make the list.

How to use IIHS in your search for a safe car

Follow these two steps when on the hunt for a safe car for your family:

  • Combine your search. The IIHS recommends you cross-reference options found through its safety pick lists with ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Authority (NHTSA). Vehicles with 4- and 5-star NHTSA ratings are recommended by the IIHS to secure the safest car possible.
  • Keep weight and size in mind. Lighter and smaller cars are regularly shown to be less effective in both crashworthiness and crash avoidance, according to the IIHS. When you’re looking through its top picks, you may want to focus on medium and heavy vehicles.

Car safety checklist

Aside from checking IIHS and NHTSA safety ratings, keeping the following factors in mind when test-driving vehicles can help you weed out any unsafe cars early on:

  • What you’re buying the car for. Think about how you’ll be driving the car and make sure the vehicle has the features to support you. Look into whether it has off-road or long-distance travel suitability, child restraints, towing capabilities and sufficient storage for your family’s needs.
  • Airbags. Check for dual front airbags, curtain airbags, side impact protection, side airbags and knee airbags.
  • General crash protection. Ensure the car has load limiter seat belts, an anti-whiplash system, adjustable head restraints, a cargo barrier and crumple zones.
  • Child restraints. In hatchbacks, there needs to be a clear path between the back seat and the rear anchorage point.
  • Features to avoid crashes. See if there’s cruise control, active cruise control and traction control, as well as a reverse camera and sensors. A light car color can enhance your visibility, while an anti-lock braking system, electronic stability control and emergency brake assist can help with crash avoidance.

What do parents think about when buying a car?

While it’s easy to scroll through a list of the 10 safest cars in the US, you also need to consider what will actually work for you and your family. We spoke to some parents at to find out their experience buying a family car, including what features were most important to them and any tips they have for other moms and dads.
girl with car


Safety was a common theme in many parents’ answers.

Bessie upgraded to a Subaru Forester for its reputation as a safe, family-friendly vehicle. “We were running out of room in our old car — a Mazda 3. It was feeling very congested, which made me worry about the safety implications,” she said.

Airbags and safety also ranked high on Fred’s list and made him want to replace his pre-dad car with a family-friendly vehicle.


The size of a vehicle directly correlates to a vehicle’s safety. While this doesn’t necessarily mean bigger is better, the ability to safely secure items in your car and trunk as well as having sufficient leg and head room for passengers impacts safety.

Size also ranked highly for many parents. “You don’t realize how difficult it can be to get kids and their stuff in and out of cramped spaces,” one mom said. “The car seat might fit in your Mini Cooper, but your back will hate you when you’re getting in and out.”

However, going out and buying the largest car may not be the best option. “While the appeal for a large SUV exists, particularly for the extra interior space, it may be more practical to downsize,” says Scott. “This is in order to provide some extra room outside the vehicle when loading and unloading children in busy or narrow parking lots.”

Fuel efficiency

While vehicle safety and fuel efficiency don’t always go hand in hand, it’s an important factor to consider when purchasing a family-friendly vehicle.

As Bessie noted, “Parenting is expensive enough without having to worry every time you need to fill up!”

Most parents we spoke to did minimal driving during the week, but drove around extensively on the weekend taking their kids to activities. Without a fuel-efficient vehicle, the gas costs can add up quickly.

The little things

You may also want to consider creature comforts like multiple charging ports or air-conditioned seats when deciding between cars:

  • Air conditioning. Many new car models have the option of air-conditioned seats, which can nip complaints from hot, whiny children in the bud.
  • Charging. Kids have gadgets, and on longer drives they tend to drain the battery. Opting for a vehicle with extra chargers and dual ports can make recharging a breeze.smiling-baby-in-car
  • Entertainment and comfort. Features like iPod connectivity so your kids can listen to their own music or DVD players in backseat headrests can help keep your little ones happy in the car. Another great tip from Fred is to make sure the seats are high enough that they can see out the window.
  • Hands-free entry. This was recommended by lots of the parents we talked to. When you’re trying to get one or more children in the car and juggling bags, you can see why keyless entry would be a handy feature.
  • Car-seat friendly. You’ll want to make sure that not only your car seat fits, but also that you have enough room for everything else you’re hauling. You can also find vehicles with purpose-built child seat attachment points to make the process even easier.

Test drive a car near you

Get connected with dealerships in your area that offer upfront pricing.

4 car-buying tips from parents

Before you hit the dealership, consider these pointers from fellow parents who’ve been in your position:

  • Choose practical over pretty. “Go for the dark interior over the gorgeous white fabric — it’s easier to hide the mess kids inevitably make! Similarly, two car doors may have once appealed to you, but four doors are definitely the way to go when kids are involved.”
  • Go inexpensive. “It’s inevitable that a car whose primary purpose is transporting young children will get trashed over time. Consider saving your dream car purchase for when your children are at an age where they’re less likely to damage your expensive toys. Cost and ease of maintenance also play a part here.”
  • Factor in your kids’ friends. “Remember your kids will likely have friends, so try to plan for your family plus an extra two seats.”
  • Do your research. “Chat with friends, family and other parents about their experiences and keep this in mind when searching for the perfect car for your own family.”

Bottom line

A safe family vehicle doesn’t have to be hard to find if you know what you’re looking for. After researching the market and considering your options, you’ll be one step closer to carpools and family road trips.

Once you’re ready to pick out your new car, compare family car loans to get the best funding available.

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