March 21, 2022

Do Older Cars Pose a Safety Hazard?

Philadelphia Car Accident Lawyers at Anthony C. Gagliano III, P.C., Advocate for Clients Involved in Car Accidents.

A well-maintained vehicle of nearly any year should be safe to drive. But the many improvements in vehicle design, mechanical systems, and safety features make a big difference in vehicle safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says passenger fatalities are more likely to occur in older vehicles than newer ones. The older the car, the more prone it is to fatal car accidents.

Ultimately, the driver is the biggest safety factor. Knowing what your vehicle is capable of doing and how its mechanical systems should work helps you to drive safely. However, a variety of factors could make newer cars safer to drive than older ones.

Death Rates Rise with Vehicle Age

NHTSA compared data on traffic fatalities versus the vehicles involved. The data show the proportion of passengers killed in accidents consistently rises with vehicle age.

NHTSA says vehicles that were built from 2013 through 2017 have a fatality rate of 26 percent. That is the lowest of any vehicle group, and 2017 is the most recent year for which full data is available.

NHTSA says the highest fatality rate belongs to vehicles built during or before 1984. Those vehicles have a 55 percent fatality rate among passengers. Other build years and their fatality rates are as follows:

  • 2008 to 2012: 31 percent
  • 2003 to 2007: 36 percent
  • 1998 to 2002: 42 percent
  • 1993 to 1997: 46 percent
  • 1985 to 1992: 53 percent

The improvements in death rates affirm that more recent efforts to improve vehicle safety are working. However, many people are driving vehicles that were built at least a decade ago.

NHTSA says that 11.6 years is the average age of a used car in the United States. That means most used vehicles on the road today have about a 31 percent death rate based on the NHTSA study that is cited above.

Federal Regulation Has Helped to Improve Vehicle Safety

Several decades ago, carmakers mostly built vehicles with virtually no safety equipment. Seat belts were only an option on some vehicles. Headrests were non-existent. And some vehicles were notoriously dangerous.

The 1965 Chevrolet Corvair suffered from a variety of generally bad design ideas that made it dangerous to drive. It was so dangerous that attorney Ralph Nader was compelled to write Unsafe at Any Speed, which famously detailed dangers in the car’s design.

The Ford Pinto is another infamous model. The popular compact car had a dangerously exposed fuel tank that often caught fire and killed passengers when rear-ended. Such vehicles partly spurred the federal government to begin regulating vehicle safety standards.

Today, the federal government mandates a variety of standard safety equipment, including airbags, seat belts, and anti-lock brake systems (ABS). If you are looking for the safest vehicles ever built, you would want to start with one that is currently produced and earns high safety ratings.

How Active and Passive Safety Systems Protect Passengers?

Modern technology is making it possible for vehicles to proactively prevent accidents. In addition, passive safety equipment is helping to save lives when accidents happen.

Active and passive systems do different things. But the use of both greatly improves safety and survivability when accidents are inevitable.

Active safety systems use either radar, sonar, or video to detect other vehicles and large objects. Passive systems work only when a collision occurs.

If you drive a car with adaptive cruise control, that is an active safety feature. The system uses radar to track the vehicle in front of you and adjust speed to maintain a safe distance.

Automated brake systems often are paired with adaptive cruise control and will initiate braking if a vehicle stops suddenly in front of you.

Blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance, and rear cross-traffic alerts are examples of active safety systems. Active safety systems help to prevent accidents and can lessen the impact and potential injuries when they do happen.

Commonly Used Passive Safety Systems on New Vehicles

Passive safety systems work only when an accident occurs. Fortunately, they generally work very well. Seat belts, airbags, and headrests all help to prevent serious injuries that could be fatal.

The passenger cabin in current-production vehicles is designed to withstand impacts. That helps to provide passengers with a reasonably sturdy and secure cabin space that can withstand hard impacts and rollover accidents.

Outside of the cabin, automakers are building vehicles with crumple zones. Crumple zones are designed to give way when hit by a vehicle or another large object.

Instead of transferring energy from the blow to the passenger cabin, the crumple zones absorb much of the energy. Crumple zones are located in the front, sides, and rear of most vehicles.

Such innovative passive safety systems greatly complement active systems. They provide you with a full range of safety features that make accidents much more survivable.

Used Market Requires Close Scrutiny

Many people simply cannot afford a new car with all of the great safety features now included in current production vehicles. Most wind up with a vehicle that is more than a decade old that is available on the used market.

NHTSA says that the older a used car buyer is, the more likely that person will suffer serious injuries or death while driving. A big part of greater risk comes from elderly drivers and passengers being more prone to suffering serious injuries.

But the relative lack of active safety systems and potentially defective passive systems can make used cars riskier to buy and drive. You need to do your homework and check which systems are available on a particular vehicle and year of manufacture.

You should make a list of available vehicles and cross-reference which safety systems are included. It also helps to read online model reviews from reputable sources, such as Edmunds and Car and Driver.

NHTSA usually posts a safety rating that you can check. It should tell you which systems are standard and which ones are optional. When you look at a used car, you need to make sure they are included and working as designed.

Philadelphia Car Accident Lawyers at Anthony C. Gagliano III, P.C., Advocate for Clients Involved in Car Accidents

Older vehicles lack the safety features of recent models, increasing the risk of a car accident and personal injury. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident, the experienced Norristown car accident lawyers at Anthony C. Gagliano III, P.C. are available to help you. We will investigate the cause of the accident and be your advocate to secure the compensation for which you are entitled. Call us at 267-861-7100 or visit our website to set up a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and King of Prussia, we serve clients in Philadelphia, Montgomery County, Delaware County, Bucks County, Chester County, and Norristown.