Car Crash in the Rain (© Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images)

When it comes to automobiles, there are no happy accidents. Traffic-jam fender benders can wreck your day, and high-speed highway collisions can threaten your life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after maladies such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's, diabetes and pneumonia, car crashes are the leading cause of death in the United States. In 2009, 33,808 people died in motor-vehicle collisions — almost twice the number of people killed in homicides. The good news is that traffic fatalities have been falling in the past two decades and are now at their lowest levels since 1949, despite a significant increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled.

That's because cars are safer than they've ever been. Two years ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety demonstrated the incredible advances in crash-protection technology over the past 50 years by crashing a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu into each other in a 40-mph frontal collision. "Basically, the measurements from the crash dummy inside the Malibu indicate that a person could possibly walk away from that crash," says David Zuby, chief research officer at the IIHS, "whereas the dummy inside the '59 Bel Air is dead."

The main advances in automobile safety over the past 50 years break down into three main categories:

  • Structural improvements, such as stronger cabin frames and engineered crumple zones.
  • Passenger-restraint systems, such as seat belts and airbags.
  • High-tech active safety systems, such as anti-lock brakes and stability control.

Obviously, some of these things, such as airbags and stability control, are features you can shop for — indeed, many of these systems are mandated or are about to be — but the structural stuff is less immediately apparent. "You can't tell just by looking at a car which one has a strong occupant compartment and which one has a weak occupant compartment," Zuby says. "Your best indication of crashworthiness is going to be crash-test ratings."

Zuby's organization is one of two major institutions that crash-tests cars. Both the IIHS and the Transportation Department's safety arm, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, routinely smash vehicles rigged with crash-test dummies and plenty of sensors to find out what happens to vehicles and people during a crash. Both organizations also spend lots of time analyzing data about real-world crashes to assess how they happen and who gets hurt.

It turns out that most crashes break down into four categories: frontal, side impact, rear and rollover. Obviously, many variables can affect the outcome of a crash: Were two cars involved or just one? Was the collision head-on or glancing? But when it comes to crash testing and statistics crunching, these four categories are the ones with the most data. Therefore, these are also the categories where we can draw some definitive conclusions about what car we'd rather be in, if we had to, for each type of crack-up.

Bing: Car Safety Features

Frontal Collision

By far the most lethal type of accident, the frontal collision includes impacts with trees, telephone poles, large animals, bridge abutments and, of course, other vehicles. The death toll for 2009 in frontal accidents was 12,239.

Most safety engineering in a vehicle is aimed at making frontal collisions more survivable. Crumple zones, for instance, are designed to help the vehicle absorb its own energy during an impact, while airbags and seat belts are designed to absorb the kinetic energy of the passengers.

In vehicle-to-vehicle frontal collisions — or any collision, for that matter — having a big, heavy vehicle also helps, although this is a subject of some controversy; the same mass that is protecting the larger vehicle's occupants is lowering the chance of survival in the smaller one. In other words, in a crash between a big truck and a compact car, the big truck is most likely to win.

Best vehicles for a frontal collision:

Compact car: Chevrolet Cruze, starting at $16,525; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control.

Midsize car: Buick LaCrosse, starting at $27,130; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control.

SUV: Volvo XC60, starting at $32,400; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control; optional forward-collision warning system.

Minivan: Honda Odyssey, starting at $27,800; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard stability control.

Truck: Toyota Tundra, starting at $23,935; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 4-star frontal crash rating; standard stability control.

Compare: Chevrolet Cruze vs. Ford Focus vs. Honda Civic