Buying a new or used car is a difficult decision, but have you included safety in your calculations? The personal finance community long ago identified two key financial decisions that can make or break a budget: your house and your car. Conventional wisdom says to buy used, to save on depreciation and to ensure that the model you’re considering has been road tested for a few years. We still agree with that advice, but a few recent changes in the automobile industry has us reconsidering our distaste for late model automobiles.
The top reason to consider a newer vehicle: Safety Features
The bevy of safety features available in new vehicles is just as impressive for the technological leaps as it is for just how many of these potentially life- and money-saving advances are now available.
As a teenager and in my early twenties, safety features were the last thing I’d check when car-shopping, if I’d even consider them at all. As I’m getting older, though, I want to drive and (more importantly) my wife to drive a safe car.
Crumple zones and design for safety
In classic cars, certain vehicles are death traps. I happen to own one, a 1968 Mustang that my wife and her father restored. We’re in the process of retromodding the beast to an extreme, including a new steering wheel. In that car, the stock steering wheel acts as a chest crushing device in the event of a head-on collision.
Newer vehicles, with more stringent safety testing, have largely avoided becoming the modern version of Ford Pinto explosion contraptions. Nevertheless, safety technology has advanced so much as to become part of the car design process.
I’ve seen the question many times, “Why don’t car manufacturers just use the cool, older designs with newer features?” The answer is the design standards. The old shapes just don’t fit with modern safety design.
Most prevalent in safety design features are the crumple zones. These areas of the car are meant to absorb the incredible amount of energy that occurs in a crash, dissipating the damage into the parts of the car that don’t have passengers. Instead of designing cars that can withstand a high-speed impact, modern vehicles are actually meant to break in those events. That controlled breakage can save life and limb.
According to Wikipedia, the number of deaths per millions of car crashes was 25.665 in 1970. Today, it’s down to 11.59. Crumple zones are paramount in achieving that reduction.
You get an airbag, and YOU get an airbag!
In a higher speed collision, nothing is as important as an airbag, or two or three. In older cars, only the driver has a front airbag, and it’s just one in the steering wheel. That technology has advanced, more reliable and more likely to save you from serious injury, but what’s more important is that airbags are now everywhere and for everyone. Newer vehicles have airbags for the passenger, side airbags, seatbelt airbags, knee-level airbags, seat airbags, rear passenger airbags, and even pedestrian airbags. In a crash, you’re going to want as much cushion as you can get, and the newer the vehicle, the more padding you have for your body.
If you’ve never driven a vehicle with a backup camera, try to rent one on your next vacation. It’s incredible how useful this device is. I find it so beneficial that our 1968 retromod will have one. While this feature may not save your life, it can easily save you the cost of a new bumper. If you’re in a neighborhood with kids and reverse out of your driveway, this may even save a child’s life. Shorter than the trunk, toddlers and animals are incredibly difficult to see when they’re behind a car, and this device will alert you to their presence as soon as you put the car in reverse.
Emergency brake assist
Backup cameras don’t do you much good when you’re in Drive, but that’s where emergency brake assist comes in. With lasers and cameras, cars are able to analyze their surroundings these days. If a pedestrian runs out in front of you, or the car you were tailgating comes to a sudden stop, emergency brake assist will detect the event and slam on the brakes for you. It may be a terrifying feature for technophobes, but the benefits of having an AI co-pilot are probably worth the incredibly unlikely event that the feature becomes a bane instead of a boon.
Blind spot warning and lane assist
Another way that cars are becoming self-aware is that they can keep an eye out for unexpected vehicles on the highway. If you’re changing lanes, you should always–100% of the time—check your blind spot. The truth is, everyone skips this vital step occasionally. We may think that we’ve kept an eye on the mirrors and know that no one is portside, but cars tend to creep up discreetly on the highway. Blind spot warning could save you from causing a terrible accident.
Whether you’re messing with the radio, drifting off into your neglected slumber, or ‘just checking this text real quick,’ you might start to drift in your lane. An intelligent vehicle can detect this deviation and alert you with bells and whistles to fix your drift.
Driver attentiveness warning
Cars are capable not only of analyze their surroundings, but also keeping an eye on the people in the cabin. If I had a teenage driver, driver attentiveness technology would be near the top of the list of must-haves. It’s a little creepy for your car to be spying on you while you drive, but if it can sound the alarm when your eyes divert away from the road, it might be worthwhile to upgrade.
My favorite part of this feature is the drowsiness warning. I once drifted off after pulling an 11pm-7am shift, and I ran off-road into a forest. By some miracle, my car split between the first two trees and then I woke up in time to dodge a couple others. Both my body and my car were unscathed, and I managed to reverse out of the forest and drive home. On my way home, I got stuck behind an ambulance on its way to the ER with an unfortunate soul in the back on whom the EMT’s were performing CPR. It was a real wake-up call for me; I could’ve been in the back of that ambulance myself.
My wife and I have a rule: if we start to feel sleepy while driving, we must call someone (usually each other) and tell the person on the other line that we’re feeling drowsy. If that’s not working, we pull over and take a nap. Drowsy driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving, and while we all try to avoid it, I’d feel much safer if our cars helped out during these sleepy events.
The greatest automobile safety feature of all: self-driving cars
All of these safety features are steps in a clear direction: cars that drive themselves completely, from your door to work to a restaurant and back home without any intervention at all.
Among most of my friends who’ve experienced a few years of adulthood, the concept of allowing a car to drive itself seems like an untrustworthy gimmick. I can’t speak to the younger cohort that grew up with smartphones glued to their little infant hands; maybe making the transition will be easier for Generation Z and younger millennials.
The truth, as painful as it may be, is that when computerized driving matures, the cars will be better drivers than almost all human drivers. They will be capable of lifesaving maneuvers that people would fail to execute. The more smart cars there are on the road (likely interconnected), the more this argument will be true. I can easily envision a time when choosing to drive “manually” will incur a hefty insurance surcharge and possibly even social scorn.
There’s no rush to upgrade your vehicle, but next time you consider it…
… then you should also pay close heed to safety features. We’re talking about a substantial risk reduction for bodily injury and death related to the highest risk activity that 99% of Americans undertake in any given week. This blog is about building wealth, but no amount of money can replace a leg or a loved-one.
We tend to undervalue our health until it hits the rocks. With modern, safer cars we can make an investment in preserving that health. It’s up to you to calculate just how much you’re willing to pay and for which features.
Hopefully this introduction to the newer options might pique the curiosity of the drivers in the personal finance community who are still putt-putting around in a perfectly fine 1996 tan Toyota Camry (4-cylinder of course). Sure, that car will get you from A to B without fail, but what if something happens along the way?