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Car Safety: Government-Mandated Safety Equipment

If you’re looking for a new car, safety features are likely a high priority, especially if you are shopping for a family car or vehicle for your teenager. We’ve compiled a list of all the safety features mandated by the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Read on to see what equipment you can expect in a car — and which ones you need to ask about. Our information should also help used-car shoppers, as we’ve included the model year that many safety-related changes went into effect.

Airbags and Passive-Restraint Systems

Since 1995, NHTSA has mandated dual front airbags in all cars. That means any 1995 model vehicle or later will have airbags for both a driver and a passenger, with a few exceptions for low-volume cars.

Before airbags, NHTSA mandated that all vehicles have passive-restraint systems in early 1989. Such systems — which often came as a motorized seat belt — protect a driver from hitting the steering wheel or a passenger from hitting the dashboard. Expect all models from 1990 and later to offer that system and many pre-1990 models as well.

Airbags have both improved and increased in numbers within modern vehicles. For example, the 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee offers up to nine airbags when properly equipped. The popular off-road SUV includes knee airbags and side airbags packaged inside the seats. These are just some of the new innovative airbag placements in cars.

Inside-Trunk Handle

NHTSA mandated that all vehicles with a trunk must have an inside-trunk handle as of early 2001. That means all 2002 or later models must have it, though many cars had it in earlier years. An inside-trunk handle prevents people from getting locked in a car’s trunk, whether through criminal actions or a simple mistake.

Tire-Pressure Monitor

NHTSA has required since 2007 that all vehicles come standard with a tire-pressure monitoring system. Expect all 2008 or later new models to carry this feature, along with many cars sold before that date.

The government mandate does not require a car to inform drivers which specific tire is low on air with tire-pressure monitors. Instead, many monitors simply announce that one tire is low on air. As a result, it’s a good idea to carry a tire gauge if you cannot visually tell which tire is low.

Electronic Stability Control

Electronic stability control (ESC) improves the stability of a car by automatically braking wheels that are slipping. The government only recently mandated that ESC be standard in modern vehicles, making the decree for the 2012 model year. All cars made after then will include the feature, as will many models made before that date. Many cars sold before 2012 will have stability control as an optional feature. Sometimes stability control will have a brand name like StabiliTrak in GM vehicles or AdvanceTrac in Ford vehicles.

Backup Camera

Vehicle backup cameras help assist drivers by automatically turning on when the car is put into reverse. The fisheye view helps people see approaching cars, dogs or cats, small children, or potential hazards that a look through the rear window will not allow. NHTSA mandated that all vehicles produced from May 1, 2018, and onward are required to have a backup camera. Expect all 2019 models and later to have this feature, in addition to many cars produced before then.

Although this list covers mandated safety features, there is crucial equipment that is still not mandated. Many shoppers will be surprised that anti-lock brakes and side airbags still aren’t required by the federal government. As a result, be sure to ask about these car safety features when choosing your next new vehicle.

Read more car safety-related articles below:

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published.

Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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  1. Also when the ABS is engaged, it still allows you to steer the car. When front brakes are locked up. there is No real steering. Its a fact, even though it feels strange. 

  2. With the ABS brakes working in my vehicle, I have always felt I lost control of the brakes while “braking hard”. The sponginess of the brake system makes me feel like I am at death’s door anytime I am braking hard to keep from hitting someone.

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