Choosing safer vehicles

Choosing the safest possible vehicle can have a huge impact on how well protected you and your family and passengers are, as well as other road users around you. Modern vehicle technology and engineering features are widely available that can significantly reduce the risk of you being in a crash in the first place, as well as offering greater protection from injury if you are in a collision.

Safety ratings

Most new vehicles are tested for to see how well they protect occupants, and other road users, in a crash. In Europe these tests are carried out by Euro NCAP, an organisation made up of representatives from European governments and consumer organisations [1]. These tests are not compulsory, so not every new vehicle is tested. Euro NCAP selects a sample of new models for testing each year, and more are submitted voluntarily by manufacturers [2]. Euro NCAP provides a star rating for overall safety, which is made up from assessment of adult occupant protection, child protection, pedestrian protection, and collision avoidance technology (see section below) [3]. As all four categories are included in the overall rating, to achieve the top five-star rating new vehicles must have adequate protection for everyone inside and outside the vehicle, and at least some collision avoidance technology. Anyone buying a new vehicle can check the safety rating at

Vehicle type

Some vehicle types are inherently more risky than others for their riders or occupants. For example, motorcyclists are nine times more likely to crash, and 17 times more likely to die in a crash, than car drivers [4]. This is partly because motorcyclists lack the protection of a vehicle around them, as well as other factors that cause these crashes, such as drivers often not spotting motorcyclists at junctions, and some motorcyclists taking risks like riding at high speed. Drivers of other vehicles should therefore take great care to look out for motorcyclists and other vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Motorcyclists should also take all possible precautions such as wearing full protective clothing and helmets, and riding slowly, well within speed limits, and avoiding overtaking.

Some vehicle types are inherently more risky for people around the vehicle. For example, larger cars such as sports utility vehicles (SUVs, often referred to as 4x4s) cause much more damage if they hit someone. A pedestrian hit by a large SUV is twice as likely to be killed as a pedestrian hit by a normal sized car [5]. In collisions between an SUV and a smaller car, the person in the smaller car is 12 times more likely to be killed than the person in the SUV [6]. This is because SUVs are generally heavier and stiffer than normal cars, and therefore cause more damage on impact. They are also taller, so pedestrians hit by SUVs are more likely to suffer head or chest injuries, which are more likely to be fatal [7].

Larger vehicles like SUVs also have bigger blind spots, so drivers are more likely to fail to see vulnerable road users, particularly children who are smaller and harder to spot.

Vehicle age

Newer vehicles are less likely to be involved in fatal crashes, due to continual improvements in crash protection features [8] (see below). The risk of dying in a crash is 71% higher in a vehicle that is 18 years old or more compared to a vehicle three years old or less [9]. Mechanical defects also become more common as a vehicle ages, further compromising the safety of the vehicle. Brake therefore advises anyone using a vehicle to choose the newest and safest they can afford. Read our fact page on vehicle maintenance.

Passive safety systems

Passive safety systems within the vehicle, such as airbags, seat belts, and side impact bars, can mean the difference between life and death in a crash. They will not prevent a crash, but will help protect the occupants from serious harm by absorbing the impact of the crash. The benefits of these features are well-known, so they are standard in modern vehicles. Vehicles with more advanced crash protection score more highly on Euro NCAP safety ratings. In particular, vehicles must score highly on child protection to achieve a high overall score [16].

Protecting vulnerable road users

Drivers should choose vehicles that not only protect the occupants, but also minimise the threat posed to other road users. Some vehicles are designed to minimise the damage to vulnerable road users in a collision. For example, cars with a short front-end and a wide windshield are less likely to kill pedestrians in a crash [17]. Brake advises against driving SUVs in urban areas – if most of your driving is in these areas, choose a smaller vehicle that is less likely to cause harm to other road users. If you’re buying a new vehicle, choose one with a high Euro NCAP safety rating for protecting vulnerable road users as well as occupants.

Mini-motos and quad bikes

Miniature motorcycles (mini-motos), miniature quad bikes and scooters are often seen as fun and exciting toys for children (it is legal for children under 16 to ride these vehicles on private property [18]). However, these vehicles are fast, powerful and difficult to control. They are therefore inappropriate and unsafe for children. Brake strongly advises against children being put in control of these vehicles in any circumstances, or carried as passengers. Read our fact page on the dangers of quad bikes and mini motos.

Choosing not to drive

Driving a motor vehicle of any type is increasingly costly, as well as being damaging to the environment and contributing to road danger and congestion. Minimising the amount you drive, or choosing not to drive at all, and getting about by public transport, walking, or cycling, can have all sorts of positive benefits for you, your community and the planet. Read our fact page on sustainable and active travel.

[1] About us, Euro NCAP, undated

[2] Cars chosen for testing, Euro NCAP, undated

[3] The ratings explained, Euro NCAP, undated

[4] Reported road casualties Great Britain: annual report 2013, Department for Transport, 2014

[5] The fatality and injury risk of light truck impacts with pedestrians in the United States, Accident Analysis and Prevention, 2004

[6] Car occupant and motorcyclist deaths, 1994-2002, Transport Research Laboratory, 2005

[7] Pattern of injury in motor vehicle accidents, University of Witwatersrand Medical School, 2002

[8] Analyzing the relationship between car generation and severity of motor-vehicle crashes in Denmark, University of Denmark’s Department of Transport, 2013

[9] How Vehicle Age and Model Year Relate to Driver Injury Severity in Fatal Crashes, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2013

[10] Vehicle safety, DaCoTa, 2012

[11] ESC reduces fatal crashes in winter by up to 32%, Swedish Transport Administration, 2012

[12] The tests explained: ESC, Euro NCAP, undated

[13] Vehicle safety, DaCoTa, 2012

[14] Auto Braking Cars : Government Should Meet Motorists Halfway, Thatcham, 2014

[15] Visibility of children behind 2010–2013 model year passenger vehicles using glances, mirrors, and backup cameras and parking sensors, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2014

[16] The ratings explained: child occupant protection, Euro NCAP, undated

[17] Effects of vehicle impact velocity, vehicle front-end shapes on pedestrian injury risk, Xiamen University of Technology, 19/09/12

[18] Road safety: mini motos, Thames Valley Police, 2014

Page last updated: October 2014

Tags: vehicle safety standards