“The easier cars become to drive, the less people think about safety,” says Jil McIntosh, car expert, blogger and columnist for Wheels.ca. “But safety should be top-of-mind. Think of it as a three-part process, starting with: 1. buy a safe car, 2. maintain its safety features, and, 3. drive it properly.”

Car safety features

While government regulations ensure that vehicles in Canada have basic safety features, Ms. McIntosh suggests that car-shopping drivers also look for these safety features:

  • Anti-lock brakes. “When you’re in a panic situation and hit your brakes hard, anti-lock brakes will pulsate the brakes and allow you to steer while you’re braking,” she explains.
  • Electronic Stability Control (ESC). ESC is a crash-avoidance system that works with your car’s anti-lock brakes. “Basically, ESC realizes when you car is sliding — after hitting an ice patch, for example — and brings your car back in line,” says Ms. McIntosh. “It doesn’t perform miracles, but it does help you regain control and avoid obstacles.”

    Expert tip: “ESC will be mandatory starting with the 2012 model year,” she says. Transport Canada will require all passenger cars, multi-purpose vehicles, trucks and some buses that are manufactured on or after September 1, 2011 to have an ESC system.
  • Active head restraints. To help reduce the risk of whiplash, more and more cars are coming out with this feature for front-seat passengers. After a rear-end collision, active head restraints sense that your body is pushed forward and, before it snaps back, automatically close the gap between your head and the headrest to reduce the force on your head, neck and spine.

  • Size and weight. “Generally, heavier cars will provide a more protective field around you; however, smaller cars are more maneuverable,” says Ms. McIntosh. “If you’re buying a larger, heavier car only because it offers more protection, also consider upgrading your driving skills.”

Make the most of safety ratings

“In Canada, we rely on two U.S. organizations to provide safety ratings: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA),” explains our expert. “Keep in mind that these ratings will not tell you how well a vehicle will hold up in a crash; however, they will tell you how well the vehicle will protect you in a crash.”

In some cases, the same model will receive two different ratings from these organizations, so check them both and see the ranking of each vehicle on your list.

Do your part for safety

“Manufacturers have done their part to provide safer vehicles, but you have to do your part as well,” says Ms. McIntosh. “And that means you must maintain your car, drive safely and wear your seatbelt.”

Here are her top tips that have nothing to do with your car, and everything to do with you:

  1. Follow your owner’s manual. The advice the manufacturer gives about your car will not only keep it on the road, it will help keep you safe while you're on it.
  2. Check your tires. “These are the single most important safety features of your car,” she explains. “Always buy the best tires you can afford, including winter-specific ones, check the tire pressure every month and ensure the tread hasn’t worn off.”
  3. Listen to your brakes. “While driving, turn off your stereo, open your windows and listen to your car,” she advises. “If you hear any squeaking or grinding, or if your brake pedal feels different, take your car in and have your brakes checked. Brake pads are usually the first things to wear out and they are relatively inexpensive to replace.”
  4. Follow recall advice. “If you do hear about a recall, think of it as a proactive piece of advice about a potential problem. So follow the manufacturer’s instructions, get it checked and have it repaired,” she says. “A recall doesn’t necessarily mean the car is no longer road-worthy.”
  5. Get advanced training. “When we’re taught how to drive, we’re actually learning how to pass the driving test and not how to drive in the real world,” says Ms. McIntosh. “Check your local driving schools to see if an advanced course or a course for adult drivers is available. You’ll gain confidence and safety skills.”