What’s safer: a 1966 Cadillac or a 2009 Civic?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently announced their 2009 Top Safety Picks, with 72 vehicles earning the honor. (Interestingly, Chrysler is the only major automaker without a single Top Safety Pick.)

That’s twice the number of winners in 2008 and three times as many as in 2007. The IIHS chalks up the huge increases to automakers making strides in how their vehicles perform in front, side and rear crashes. New cars also have improved seat and head restraint design and offer electronic stability control as a means to avoid accidents.

All this new safety technology appears to be paying off, as estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show the number of people killed in traffic accidents in the U.S. this year is expected to be the lowest on record (recordkeeping began in 1966).

The question is will those numbers continue to decrease as the size of new vehicles also decreases? It’s logical to assume that the bigger the car, the safer its occupants are. I was once at a Hummer dealership and the salesman told me that to date, no one had ever been killed inside a Hummer as a result of a car accident. While this is great news for a Hummer owner, it’s not so great for someone who gets into an accident with one! 

Considering how many different sizes of cars are on the roads, it’s logical to assume that the heavier ones provide more protection than the smaller ones, regardless of what technology is used. Even though a 1966 Cadillac DeVille has no airbags or emergency stability control, I’ll bet a lot of people would choose to be encased in its solid steel body in an accident, even over a 2009 fully loaded Civic with the newest safety gear.

As cars become laden with safety features and traffic deaths are at an all-time low, it’s apparent that something must be working right. My bet is that the newest accident-avoidance features, such as ESC, must be paying off by resulting in avoidance of accidents in the first place. 

We want to know: Have the latest safety features protected you in an accident or helped you avoid one?



  1. I was in a head on back in July 2003. I was driving my 1972 Buick Riviera and had a 1999 Lincoln Navigator hit me straight on. It completely crushed the front of my car and turned me around. My Buick was leaking antifreeze as the front was smashed and the bumper all twisted, It looked awful.The Navigator didn’t look as bad but you could see some front end damage. Even though my Riviera weighs around 4,500 pounds, the Navigator is a 6000 pound truck. My only injuries were a briuse on my leg and a knot on my wrist. Even though my car looked worse than the Lincoln, when the police told the owner to move his truck, it wouldn’t move. His entire front end was locked up.
    My Riviera on the other hand started right up with no noise and I was able to drive it into my yard after the tow truck left it on my driveway.
    The owner of the local body shop saw my Riviera and said all it would need was new sheetmetal (Front end, bumpers and fenders). They said the frame and engine had not suffered any trauma. From the winshield back there was no damage anywhere. Three months later the Riviera is on the road. My only safety features I know of are my seat belts and the collapsible steering column. If I were in a car such as a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla I don’t know that I would have walked out with such minor inuries.
    I realize that today’s cars are made to crumple and are usually “totaled” after an accident but I’m thrilled I was able to salvage my 72 and continue to drive it daily.

  2. @ Justin Gazda

    I absolutely agree. Though Chaos theory applies, in simplicity it’s no more complicated than comparing the structural integrity of two object by smashing them together. Inertia applies so very heavily in surviving a car accident, and whoever favors Sir Newton more wins. Thus, moreover, the old iron cars tend to prevail over newer “crushable” cars in almost every given scenario. The only place I readily recognize to fail is where the required force to move an object struck by your vehicle far exceeds the what force is applied, such as hitting an oak tree: The “crushable” car wins there. It is specifically designed to absorb the excess forward momentum, reducing impact forces on the passengers, whereas the old rust buckets simply transfer it all to them.
    In short, just don’t go hitting any arbitrary trees or skyscrapers.

  3. I have owned many examples of old iron cars in my time, and not only feel safer in them, But I know for a fact that I am. The thing is, most people in the old days did not wear their seatbelts, and it shows.

    I am quite confident that in my 68 new yorker, I could have a tremendous accident and walk away fine, but only if I use the safety gear provided. It had shoulder belts, safety glass, side impact door beams, and the like.

    The stats show that you have a 75% chance of surviving any accident in any car. The 25 percent death comes when luck happens to put you in a position where the other guy has a much more robust car and hits you in a way that makes you die.

    I saw photos of a motorcycle that crashed into a volkswagen golf. The motorcycle was laying across both front seats and all people in the accident died.

    A freak accident, but I am sure those involved never thought it would happen to them, but they are still quite dead nonetheless.

  4. One feature that is supposed to make newer cars safer is the ABS. The thing is though I HATE ABS brakes!! I live in Massachusetts and we get snow up here. I can’t control the car for beans once the ABS kicks in during slippery weather. I actually think it’s NOT as safe as just plain old breaks.

  5. true true. I personally have not been involved in a heavy accident. (touch wood). My mother, however, was in a heavy accident about 12 months ago. She was behind the wheel of her little Suzuki Swift, it was very new at the time. She had pulled out of an intersection turning right at a set of lights, she had the green and as usual proceeded with caution waiting til the car to her right had stopped. As she came off the clutch and got the car rolling another car to her right failed to stop on the red and she had not seen it past the other car which had stopped and she was hit in the driver’s door, (Australia, the drivers door is on the right side) by the Nissan Skyline at around 65km/h. The little Suzuki spun once and was a mess, however, the crumple zones, side intrusion beams and airbags all contributed to keeping my mother safe and relatively injury free inside the car.
    I dare say that in an older car, even a bigger/heavier one without those safety features the outcome would have been somewhat different.
    Thanks. Brad, Australia.

  6. A large percentage of accidents are single car accidents. In these cases it is much better to have a car that crumples than a car made of steel. Heavy steel cars tend to stop nearly instantaneously when they hit a tree, wall, or other immovable object. This tends to be bad for the driver. So yes, the Cadillac will be great if you plow through a Toyota Echo, but not so much if you something big. Plus, the Cadillac is more likely to survive the accident than you are.

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