Side-Impact Collision

The side-impact collision can take two forms: a loss of control and the resulting slide into a tree or other obstacle, or the classic, broadside T-bone intersection crash. Although side collisions are responsible for only about half the deaths of frontal accidents, they are nonetheless particularly dangerous because there is often little warning of the impending impact, and because vehicles offer far less structural protection on the sides. "There isn't much of a side crush zone in vehicles," Zuby says. "That's why airbags are important."

Click to enlarge pictureToyota Sienna LE (© Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.)

Toyota Sienna LE

Best vehicles for a side-impact collision:

Compact car: Chevrolet Cruze, starting at $16,525; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard front and rear side-impact airbags, plus side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.

Larger car: Hyundai Sonata, starting at $19,395; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard side-impact and side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.

SUV: Chevrolet Traverse, starting at $29,370; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard side-impact and side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.

Minivan: Toyota Sienna, starting at $24,560; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard driver and passenger side airbags, plus 3-row side-curtain airbags; standard stability control.

Truck: Ford F-150, starting at $22,790; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star side-impact rating; standard canopy and side-impact airbags; standard stability control.

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Rear-End Collision

Rear-end collisions are the most common of accidents, but the least fatal. According to IIHS stats, fewer than 1,000 people died due to rear-end impacts in 2009. When you examine the physics, it's hardly surprising; cars are typically moving forward or stopped when hit from behind, and therefore much of the kinetic energy from the accident ends up pushing the crashed vehicle further forward. Also, most rear-end collisions occur in slow or stopped traffic, so the damage to a vehicle is largely cosmetic. This is not to say that these crashes are inconsequential. Even low-speed collisions can do extensive damage to a car, resulting in hundreds if not thousands of dollars in repair costs. And higher-speed impacts that might not be life threatening can still cause debilitating neck injuries.

In an interesting show of priorities, NHTSA doesn't bother testing cars for rear impact, and the IIHS's high-speed rear-impact tests just use a vehicle's seats on a sled. The only major crash-test from behind on actual vehicles is the IIHS's low-speed impact test on bumpers, and these tests have been conducted on only a small selection of vehicles — none of which, it's worth noting, have ever scored above "acceptable." Nevertheless, since we lack the money to do this sort of testing ourselves, we'll present some suggestions based on the data that exist.

Best vehicles for a rear-end collision:

Compact car: Scion xB, starting at $16,000; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: acceptable.

Larger car: Subaru Legacy, starting at $19,995; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: acceptable.

SUV: Ford Flex, starting at $29,220; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: no data available.

Minivan: Toyota Sienna, starting at $24,560; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: no data available for current model.

Truck: Toyota Tundra, starting at $23,935; IIHS Top Safety Pick; IIHS rear-crash protection seat rating: good; IIHS bumper rating: no data available.

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Rollover

The rollover is the most frightening of accidents because once it starts, there's nothing you can do but hold on and pray. Rollovers can occur after a loss of control due to a slippery road or a blowout, or they can happen after another type of collision, resulting in double-whammy accidents that have greatly increased danger. According to Zuby, the most deadly possibility in a rollover is passenger ejection, usually because someone isn't wearing a seat belt.

Rollovers used to be a chronic problem with SUVs and other top-heavy vehicles, but the danger is starting to be reduced by the increased availability of stability control systems. Still, rollovers in tall vehicles are a risk. In NHTSA's new, more stringent tests for 2011, no SUVs, trucks or minivans have yet gotten a full 5-star rating. The best way to avoid a rollover is to drive a car with a low center of gravity, but not all of us can afford a Lamborghini Aventador, so here are some other options.

Best vehicles for a rollover:

Compact car: Audi A4, starting at $32,300; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star rollover rating; standard stability control.

Larger car: BMW 5-Series, starting at $45,050; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 5-star rollover rating; standard stability control; optional lane-departure warning.

SUV: Volvo XC60, starting at $32,400; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 4-star rollover rating; standard stability control; optional forward collision warning system.

Minivan: Honda Odyssey, starting at $27,800; IIHS Top Safety Pick; NHTSA 4-star rollover rating; standard stability control.

Truck: GMC Sierra 1500, starting at $21,235; NHTSA 4-star rollover rating; standard stability control.

Bing: Safest Cars

Sam Foley is a Connecticut-based automotive journalist who has written for GQ, Forbes, USA Today, the New York Post and various other publications.