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Buying a Used Car: Are Side Airbags Really That Important?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro October 2015

If you're interested in buying a used car, you've probably already noticed that most used models don't offer the same level of safety equipment as new cars. Side airbags are one major area where this is true: While most new models offer standard side airbags, the feature didn't really become commonplace in used cars until the mid- to late-2000s. So do you really need to make sure your next used car has side airbags? Is the feature that much of a safety benefit? We have the answers.

Depends On The Airbag

In general, there are two types of side airbags: those that protect the head (often called side-curtain airbags) and those that protect the chest (called just side airbags or torso side airbags).

While both versions of side airbags have been demonstrated to decrease driver injury and death, head-protecting side airbags do a better job. In a 2006 study conducted by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, SUV fatality risk went down 52 percent with head-protecting side airbags and 30 percent with torso side airbags. Both are big numbers -- but for maximum protection, you'll want side airbags that protect the head, and not just the body.

Better Safe Than Sorry

Still, if safety is a priority, we highly recommend choosing a car with some form of side airbags over a car that doesn't have any. The federal government's National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration estimates that 700 to 1,000 lives per year would be saved if all cars were equipped with head-protecting side airbags -- not a small figure. The agency also says that nearly 60 percent of vehicle occupants killed in side-impact crashes have suffered a brain injury, suggesting side airbags could've helped them stay safe.

Our Take

If safety is a priority and you're interested in buying a used car, we strongly recommend getting a vehicle with side airbags rather than one that doesn't have the feature. Multiple studies have confirmed the effectiveness of side airbags, meaning that they offer a serious safety benefit -- much like front airbags, anti-lock brakes or seat belts.

Of course, you can't get side airbags in some vehicles, regardless of how hard you try -- especially older performance cars, pickups and cars from the 1990s or before. But if safety is a top priority, we suggest skipping those models and doing everything you can to instead buy something with side airbags -- and preferably those that protect your head.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used Car: Are Side Airbags Really That Important? - Autotrader