My fiancée wrecked my brand-new Ford Ranger last week. I knew about it the second it happened, because Ford’s smartphone app sent me an alert. It’s a good reminder that while financing or leasing a brand-new vehicle might seem like a burden, it’s also the absolute best way to ensure your safety.
I’ve written about the false economy that old-vehicle ownership represents. While it may seem like you can’t afford a new car, taking out a loan or a lease payment often makes much more sense than paying cash for an older vehicle. Not only do us regular folk earn money incrementally, which makes committing to a regular payment easier than dropping a large lump sum (and being on the hook for unpredictable repair bills), but new cars are so much safer than even models from just a few years ago that going brand new is probably the most important thing you can do to avoid massive, crippling, life-ruining medical bills. I know that because my credit remains so ruined from a crash I had six years ago that I still have to get my fiancée to cosign my car loans.
Virginia’s crash was the kind that occurs every minute of every day in this country: at an intersection, a much larger pickup plowed into the Ranger’s side. It was snowing heavily at the time, so despite both drivers attempting to brake, neither vehicle was able to shed much speed. Luckily, those speeds were below 25 miles per hour. Virginia’s a little sore, but she’s not joining the ranks of 3 million Americans who are injured badly enough in car crashes every year that they require medical treatment.
Would we be able to say the same if she’d been driving our 1998 Toyota 4Runner? Let’s look at the data. Way back in 1996, when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tested the third-generation 4Runner (identical to ours for the purposes of this discussion), it used a 40 percent overlap front crash test to simulate the results of the vehicle partially colliding with a front obstacle. That’s the most relevant test to the crash Virginia experienced. The IIHS granted the 4Runner an “acceptable” rating for that test, the second-best score available. It also noted that there was “far too much upward movement of the steering wheel,” that “there was more footwell intrusion than is desirable,” and “the 4Runner’s bumpers are very poor. They allowed excessive damage in low-speed impacts.” You can see a video of that crash test below.
In 2012, the IIHS instituted a much more severe 25 percent overlap crash test. By running a car into that smaller barrier at the same speed of 40 mph, it exposes the vehicle and its occupants to much higher forces. The new Ford Ranger achieves a best possible “good” rating from the IIHS in that test. It notes, “The frontal and side curtain airbags worked well together to keep the head from coming close to any stiff structure or outside objects that could cause injury,” but also finds that there is a risk of injury to the driver’s right leg. You can see a video of that crash test below.
Note that this involves a much smaller barrier than the video of the 4Runner included above. Also note all those airbags going off. The 4Runner has only driver and passenger airbags—no side airbags at all.
Taken together, the results of those two tests indicate that the new Ford Ranger transfers far less energy to its occupants even in a more severe crash. And it does that while maintaining a more intact safety cell around its passengers, preventing objects from intruding into their space. It also includes more airbags of a more advanced design that prevent the occupants’ heads from being exposed to injury. Would Virginia have been injured severely enough in an older vehicle that she would have required medical treatment? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it’s also inarguable that the likliehood of injury would have been far greater.
As for health insurance? Mine costs just under $500 a month, and my emergency room visit deductible is $3,000. That deductible is more than six months of payments for the Ranger. Add in all the hidden fees that come with an ER visit, some time off work, and all the effort it takes to recover from an injury, and those car payments don’t seem so bad. And this was for a sub-25 mph crash.
That small-overlap front crash test is a great way to segue into ever-advancing vehicle safety. When the test went into effect in 2012, it was conducted only on the driver’s side. Beginning with the 2018 model year, the IIHS began running the test for the passenger side as well. In the first year, only one in seven of the vehicles tested passed. Manufacturers design their vehicles to pass crash tests conducted by the IIHS and other similar organizations. As those tests become more difficult, vehicles become safer.
To illustrate the additional degree of safety that can be added to a vehicle in just one model generation, let’s look at something families commonly drive, as it existed before the small-overlap test’s expansion to the passenger side and after. The 2018 RAV4 achieved only a “poor” rating in the passenger-side small-overlap crash test. The IIHS notes, “The passenger door opened during the crash, which shouldn’t happen because the [passenger] could be partly or completely ejected from the vehicle.” It also notes, “The dummy’s position in relation to the door frame and dashboard after the crash test indicates that the passenger’s survival space was not maintained well.” Video of that test is below.
Compare those results to the redesigned 2019 RAV4. It achieves the highest “good” rating for the same test the 2018 model failed. “The dummy’s position in relation to the door frame and dashboard after the crash test indicates that the passenger’s survival space was maintained very well,” the IIHS finds. You can watch that test below.
So, in one year, the Toyota RAV4’s safety advanced considerably. This holds true across all new vehicle generations and models. Each one is designed to pass ever-more difficult crash tests and gains safety as a result. Note that the “new cars are safer cars” rule only applies as actual updates are made to those cars. This isn’t the case for vehicles that were developed a decade or more ago but remain on sale.
And we’re just talking about safety in a crash here. A vehicle’s ability to avoid those crashes and take potentially life-saving actions after one also advances with every new iteration. The 2019 Ford Ranger that Virginia was driving is equipped with an automatic emergency braking system of the kind that will be standard fitment on virtually all vehicles by 2022. IIHS data shows that rear-end collisions (which is not what occurred here) are reduced by 50 percent on vehicles fitted with AEB. By 2025, IIHS estimates that AEB will prevent 12,000 injuries on U.S. roads each year. Had the vehicle that hit Virginia been equipped with AEB, there’s a chance the accident may not have occured at all or would have been less severe.
That’s only one of many new safety technologies being implemented in new cars right now. Another feature in the Ford is an automated alert system. It sent an emergency notification to my phone the second the crash occurred and showed me the vehicle’s exact location. Had the airbags deployed, the truck would have dialed 911 on its own and automatically reported details of the incident to emergency responders. Sure, that was overkill this time, but what if the crash had been severe enough to render Virginia unconscious? Regardless, it is extremely reassuring that first responders would have been notified and able to find her.
I’m talking about a relatively expensive, $44,000 pickup in this case. But you don’t need to spend that much money to access similar levels of safety technology. An all-wheel-drive Hyundai Kona, which starts at $22,595, achieves a “good” rating from the IIHS in every single one of its tests. All versions are fitted with AEB, and you can lease one for $219 a month. Put a decent set of lightweight all-terrain tires on it, and you will have no problem taking it down a remote dirt road to go camping. Heck, you can lease a Ranger starting at $298 a month.
Ninety people are killed in car crashes in this country every day. This one wasn’t that bad, and Virginia’s fine, but that may not always be the case. Signing up for a monthly payment is a bit scary, but it’s nothing like the prospect of losing her.