If you are in the market for a new or used vehicle, prioritising safety features is one of the most effective ways of protecting yourself, your passengers and other road users. Choosing a car or motorcycle with a good safety rating can be the difference between life and death – in the event of a crash, you are twice as likely to have a fatal impact in a vehicle with a three-star rating compared to one with a five-star rating. It has been estimated that if every Australian upgraded their vehicle to the safest in its class, it could result in a 26-40% drop in road trauma.
Vehicle safety has little to do with the size, class, or cost of your vehicle. Cars with higher star ratings do not necessarily cost more. There are four and five-star options within each class, price range, and plate year. Always aim for the best you can manage within your budget.
What makes a safer car?
Every year, improvements are made to vehicle safety, so newer cars are typically safer than older ones – although there are plenty of safe options in the used car market. Improvements to structure, restraints, and new driver assist technologies all increase safety.
The Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) tests and rates new vehicles, while the Used Car Safety Ratings (UCSR) are a good source of information for older vehicles. Both programs award stars based on vehicle safety, though the way they assess the safety differs so a car awarded five stars under the UCSR may not be as safe as a car with a five ANCAP stars. For more information on the two programs, see the sections below. Vehicles are rated based on how well they protect adult and child occupants, how well they minimise risk to other road users (including other drivers, and vulnerable road users such as pedestrians) and the presence and effectiveness of safety technologies. These ratings are a good indication of the relative levels of protection these vehicles provide. It’s important to note that a 5 star ANCAP rating is a higher safety standard than what is legally required for vehicles in Australia, so you cannot assume that just because a car is new that has a good rating – check before you buy. Aim for the best-rated car you can afford.
Safety improvements generally fall into two categories: active safety technologies such as Electronic Stability Control or Autonomous Emergency Braking, and crash protection features such as airbags, crumple zones, and seatbelts.
What makes a safer motorcycle?
While ANCAP and the Used Car Safety Ratings focus on testing cars, many of the features outlined below still apply to motorcycles. The safety features that motorcycle buyers should look out for include:
- Anti-lock Braking Systems
- Traction Control
- Autonomous Emergency braking
- Blind spot detection
- Adaptive Cruise Control
Motorcyclists are among the most vulnerable road users, and are disproportionately represented in road incident statistics. Choosing a safe bike, and pairing it with MOTOCAP-approved gear and CRASH approved helmets can greatly increase your safety on the road.
Active safety technologies
Active safety technologies help to prevent crashes or to reduce the impact of an emergency situation by actively assisting the driver. These technologies are also referred to as active safety systems, advanced driver assistance systems, or crash prevention technologies. Examples of these technologies are outlined below.
Anti-lock braking operates by preventing the wheels from locking up during braking, allowing the tyres to maintain traction with the road surface.
While ABS helps maintain control while braking, traction control helps maintain control while accelerating. This safety feature measures rotational speed of the wheels and reduces wheel spin to improve the driver's control and vehicle stability during acceleration, even on slippery or wet roads.
This system automatically applies the brakes if a likely collision is detected. AEB systems can detect and mitigate potential crashes with pedestrians and cyclists in addition to other vehicles.
Emergency Brake Assist (EBA)
Emergency Brake Assist systems detect an emergency braking situation by analysing the speed and force with which the brake pedal is pushed, and supports the driver by maximising braking to achieve a faster slowdown of the vehicle than could be achieved by the driver alone.
Electronic Stability Control
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) detects when the vehicle is skidding or spinning out of control, and uses a mixture of selective braking and traction control to bring the vehicle back on course.
Lane Support Systems
Lane support systems, such as lane departure warnings or lane keeping assist, help the driver keep the car in the intended lane by issuing warnings or correcting the vehicle heading if it detects that the car is about to drift over a lane marking.
- Lane Keeping Assist (LKA) – detects when the vehicle is about to drift over a lane marking, and automatically steers the vehicle back into the lane.
- Lane Departure Warning (LDW) – issues a warning when it detects that the vehicle is about to drift over the lane marking of the current travel lane.
Speed Assist Systems
- Adaptive Cruise Control - detects the distance and speed of the vehicle in front and maintains an appropriate following distance
- Intelligent Speed Assist - a safety technology that alerts drivers when they exceed the speed limit. Audio and visual warnings activate to remind the driver that they are going too fast.
Steering Support Systems
- Autonomous Emergency Steering (AES) – when a likely collision is detected, AES automatically applies steering to avoid the collision.
- Emergency Steering Support (ESS) – In an emergency situation, ESS supports the driver’s steering input to alter the vehicle’s path and avoid a collision. Unlike AES, ESS is not automatically applied – ESS supports the driver, instead of working independently.
Other Monitoring and Warning Systems
- Blind spot monitoring – these systems detect and warn the driver of other vehicles that are in the vehicle’s blind spot, that is, vehicles that are behind or to one side of the car or motorcycle and cannot be seen.
- Child presence detection systems – these systems monitor the rear seats and doors and notify the driver or emergency services of a child that may have inadvertently been left in a locked car.
- Fatigue Warning System – this alerts the driver if it has detected signs of inattention or drowsiness.
- Forward Collision Warning (FCW) – a type of warning system that provides an audio-visual warning to the driver if a likely forward collision is detected.
Crash Protection Features
These features seek to reduce the impact if a crash does occur by offering improved protection, assisting first responders, facilitating extrication, and enhancing post-crash safety. Modern cars have improved structure, restraints, and airbag systems that can reduce the impact on both vehicle occupants and other vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists.
Structure and Crumple Zones
Newer vehicles have stronger, improved structures that are designed to absorb the energy from a crash and protect the passenger compartment. The front and rear compartments are designed to crumple in a controlled and progressive way and allow the passenger compartment to decelerate slowly. This reduces the force passed on to the car occupants and reduces the severity of any potential injury.
These energy-absorbing structures can also help redirect the impact on pedestrians and other vulnerable road users in a collision.
In the event of a forward collision with a pedestrian, an active bonnet will raise the bonnet to better absorb the impact and to reduce injury to the pedestrian.
There are several types of airbag to look out for:
- Frontal airbag – designed to protect your head in a crash, by slowing down the occupant and reducing the impact against the dash, doors, windows and steering wheel.
- Side airbags – deploy in side-impact crashes to reduce the impact of hitting the side of the vehicle’s interior.
- Curtain airbags – provide additional protection for the head (for front and rear passengers) in the case of a side impact.
- Rollover occupant protection systems – detects a rollover, and deploys inflatable curtains or airbags that stay inflated longer than standard airbags.
- Pedestrian airbag – detects a crash with a pedestrian and deploys an external airbag.
Seatbelt Safety Features
Wearing a seatbelt greatly improves your chance of surviving a crash. There are several seatbelt safety features to look out for when purchasing a new or used vehicle:
- Seatbelt reminder systems – seatbelt reminder systems give a visual and auditory warning when the driver’s seatbelt is not fastened. More advanced systems also sense when passenger seats are occupied and warn the driver if and occupied seat has an unfastened seatbelt.
- Seatbelt pre-tensioners – pre-tensioners detect the likelihood of a crash, and automatically tighten seatbelts and reduce any slack. This protects the car occupant from rapidly moving forward in the event of a crash.
- Three-point seatbelts – a form of seatbelt that is safer than lap seatbelts in a frontal crash, and the best choice for the centre-rear seat.
A head restraint is designed to reduce the movement of the head and provide support in a crash. A properly adjusted head restraint will help to protect against whiplash, and potentially save you from a long-term injury. The top of the head restraint should always be as high as the top of your head and as close to the rear of your head as possible.
A Note on Child Occupant Protection
Child Occupant Protection is one of the four key areas which ANCAP uses to assess the overall safety rating of a car. ANCAP assesses the extent to which standard crash protection features protect children, but also takes into account the presence of three point seatbelts, the number and type of child restraint anchorage points, and considers what child-specific safety features are present. Features that factor into child safety are:
- ISOFix seating positions – these are dedicated points that allow for the easy installation of child restraints. Ideally, a vehicle will incorporate design features that allow for a range of different types of child restraint to be fitted. For more information on child restraints, visit our page on Child Safety in WA.
- Side curtain airbags – these airbags are generally considered safe for child passengers and provide added protection in side-impact crashes.
- Child presence detection system – detects whether a child has been left inside a vehicle and can warn the driver or emergency services.
- Airbag disabling and labelling – any vehicle fitted with a passenger frontal protection airbag must be marked with a permanent airbag warning, and any text or instructions in relation to disabling the airbag mut be permanently attached to the vehicle. Some vehicles can automatically detect the presence of a rearward facing child restraint system (CRS) and can turn off the airbag automatically. Such a system must re-activate the airbag when the CRS is removed.
- Integrated CRS – some vehicles come with an integrated child restraint system.
For more information on how ANCAP assesses child occupant protection, visit the ANCAP website.
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) is Australia and New Zealand's independent voice on vehicle safety. ANCAP assesses new light vehicles including passenger cars, SUVs and light commercial vehicles with a GVM up to 3.5 tonnes. ANCAP assesses vehicles by measuring their performance in controlled crash situations. They measure against four key areas:
- Adult Occupant Protection. This considers the level of protection offered by the vehicle to adult occupants in the most common types of serious injury crashes.
- Child Occupant Protection, which evaluates the level of protection offered to child occupants seated in appropriate child restraints in the rear seats. The ability to effectively accommodate a range of child restraints is also assessed.
- Vulnerable Road User Protection, which assesses the design of the front of the vehicle to minimise injury risk to a struck pedestrian. Vehicles are also assessed for their ability to actively avoid or mitigate impacts with pedestrians and cyclists.
- Safety Assist, which evaluates the presence and effectiveness of active safety technologies fitted to the vehicle. Active safety technologies, such as Electronic Stability Control, assist the driver in preventing or minimising the effects of a crash.
To achieve a five star rating from ANCAP, a vehicle must perform to the highest level across all crash tests and assessments.
About the Used Car Safety Ratings
The Used Car Safety Ratings are created by the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) on behalf of members of the Vehicle Safety Research Group, which includes WA’s Road Safety Commission. The Accident Research Centre uses the latest real-world crash statistics to provide an indication of the risk of death or serious injury to the driver of the vehicle in a crash compared with other vehicles on the road.
To maximise your safety and the safety of others, look for a vehicle with a 5 star Driver Protection rating and a ‘SAFER PICK’ marker.
To quality as a ‘Safer Pick’ and a 5 star Driver Protection rating, the vehicle must:
- Provide good protection for the driver
- Be less likely to result in serious injuries to other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists
- Have a lower risk of being involved in a crash
To find out which used cars were rated the safest, view the Used Car Safety Ratings 2022.