Electronic Stability Control. This system uses anti-lock brakes to control spins and slides that can start rollover accidents. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that electronic stability control (or ESC) cuts fatal single-car crashes by 51%. "ESC is the most important safety feature most drivers have never heard of," says Institute spokesman Russ Rader. Beginning with 2012 models, all new cars will be required to have stability control as standard equipment. On 2010 models, 88% do. But for 2007, the percentage was just 56%. So if you're looking for a used car, check an auto information site like Kelley Blue Book to see which models come with stability control.
Side air bags. These air bags protect heads and chests against side-impact crashes, which cause one-third of traffic deaths. They're now standard on 77% of new cars, but were standard on just 48% of 2007 models. If side air bags are optional on a new car you want, (they cost $490 on the 2010 Jeep Wrangler, for instance), get them.
Rear view camera. Offered especially on SUVs and pickups, a rear view camera shows the driver what's directly behind the vehicle. It helps avoid backover accidents, where small children most often are the victims. The camera typically comes as part of an expensive option package, but not always. For instance, on the SUV Toyota 4Runner, the backup camera option is $525. If you have small children, or your neighbors do, you really should consider getting this safety feature.
And keep an eye out for three new safety technologies starting to come on the market:
Lane-departure warnings that buzz or vibrate if you're drifting out of your lane
Adaptive cruise control, available on some Mercedes-Benz models, which judges how close you are to the car ahead and adjusts the brakes and throttle to keep a safe distance.
Night vision, available on BMW 5-series and 7-series and Audi A8 helps spot deer or pedestrians on dark, curving country roads.
Though now just in luxury brands, these devices--like past safety advances--likely will spread to lower-cost cars in coming years.