SafeWise Car Safety Guide

Car safety goes far beyond what’s on the average driving test. Our guide will level-up your driving and car maintenance skills, teach you the dos and don’ts of roadside emergencies, and reveal some car safety trends to look for in newer vehicles.

Plus, we’ll share our top tips for keeping child passengers safe, preventing car theft, and knowing when to stay off the road.



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woman checking oil under hood of car

Car maintenance

Routine car maintenance keeps you safe on the road by reducing the likelihood of a flat tire, brake failure, engine fire, and poor visibility.

Stay on schedule with a vehicle maintenance log book, or go the high-tech route with a telematics device like Bouncie, Vivint Car Guard, or MOTOsafety.

Tire safety

Checking tire tread

Whether you’re hitting the brakes on a dry road or white-knuckling it in icy conditions, thick tire treads give your car traction for stability and better control.

Tires with little to no tread—called “bald” tires—also build up heat faster than those with proper tread. Eventually, they get too hot or thin and burst.

These tires are halfway through their lifespan. Image: Cathy Habas, SafeWise

You can check tire tread yourself with a penny. Place the penny in a groove with Lincoln’s head pointing down. Ideally, Lincoln’s eyes will be covered by the tire treads. If his head isn’t covered at all, the tire treads are worn out and need to be replaced.

Rotating your tires

The tread wears out in a slightly different part of the tire based on where it’s placed on the car—front or rear and left or right. Tires last longer when they’re moved to a different position on the car every 5,000 miles.

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Don’t mistake rotating for flipping

Tires must be mounted in a particular direction so that the treads push water away from the undercarriage. If the tires are put on backward, they throw water onto all of those metal parts and accelerate rust formation.

Follow a specific pattern of rotation based on your car’s drivetrain:

Starting position
Front-wheel drive end position
Rear-wheel and four-wheel drive end position
Front rightRear rightRear left
Front leftRear leftRear right
Rear rightFront leftFront right
Rear leftFront rightFront left

You can rotate tires yourself as long as you have a jack lift and more than one jack stand. Read our guide to changing a tire for step-by-step instructions. Otherwise, expect to pay  $25–$80 for a professional tire rotation.

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Interpreting tread patterns

Tread wear patterns sometimes point to alignment, inflation, or suspension problems. For example, you can tell that a tire is overinflated if it’s wearing out in the center but not on the sides. Consider letting a professional evaluate the tread wear pattern before rotating your tires.

Brake safety

Replacing brake pads

When you press the brake pedal, each tire’s rotor (a metal disc) gets squeezed by two brake pads. The resulting friction not only stops your car but also wears down the pads.

If you do a lot of stop-and-go city driving, expect to replace the brakes every 10,000 miles. If you rack up most of your miles on the freeway, your brakes could last up to 20,000 miles.

Because the lifespan of car brakes varies so much, it’s best to periodically check your brake pads and to learn the warning signs of worn-out brakes.

Checking brake pads

Get in the habit of checking brake pads when rotating your tires. You’ll have a clear view of both pads with the tire off.

The pads should be at least a quarter-inch thick and show even wear. If a pad looks wedge-shaped, something’s wrong with the rotor or another component in the brake system.

It’s definitely time to replace the brake pads if you notice your car takes longer to stop. You might also hear squeaking or feel a vibration or “pulling” sensation when you step on the brakes.

Adding brake fluid

Brakes operate via hydraulics, which means fluid is pushed around tubes to apply pressure on different components, making them move. The fluid in question is aptly named brake fluid.

Without enough brake fluid, the brake pedal could go all the way to the floor and still not create enough pressure to move the brake pads and stop the car.

Image: Cathy Habas, SafeWise

Brake fluid is added to a reservoir under the hood. The brake fluid symbol looks like a circle surrounded by two parentheses. Keep the fluid levels between the min and max lines on the side of the reservoir.

Completely flush and replace brake fluid every 30,000 miles to get rid of debris build-up and excess water. 

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Not all brake fluid is the same

Brake fluids are categorized as DOT 3, DOT 4, DOT 5, or DOT 5.1.  Look in your owner’s manual to find out which type of brake fluid is safe for your car. Using the wrong kind can cause damage.

Windshield safety

If you can’t see out of your windshield, you can’t drive. Prep for dusty or wet conditions by maintaining the windshield, wipers, and cleaning fluid.

Cleaning your windshield

Get in the habit of clearing grime, road salt, and bug guts from your windshield whenever you stop at the gas station. Windshield wipers aren’t cut out for this heavy-duty job.

  1. Scrub the glass with the spongy side of the windshield cleaning tool.
  2. Squeegee the window from top to bottom with the tool’s rubber blade.
  3. Wipe accumulated grime off the rubber blade after every swipe.
  4. Lift the windshield wipers and scrub them too.

Replacing worn-out windshield wipers

Image: Celeste Tholen, SafeWise

If the rubber is falling off your windshield wipers, or they’re not clearing water as they should, it’s time to replace them. Measure the length of your old wiper blades and get the same size. Wipers are held in place with a clip, so just pop out the old and snap in the new.

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Never drive with a foggy windshield

Use your car’s defroster to clear up a foggy windshield. No matter how late you are for work, don’t drive until it’s totally clear.

Adding windshield fluid

Windshield washer fluid cleans your windshield on the go. Don’t let it run out, or you may end up driving with poor visibility.

You’ll see summer and winter windshield fluids on the shelves. The winter varieties contain antifreeze so they’ll work in frigid temps. But some winter windshield washer fluids can’t withstand negative-degree weather, so grab one with a temperature tolerance suited to your region.

Summer windshield washer fluids don’t contain antifreeze, making them a bit safer for the environment.

Bell
Windshield washer fluid is poisonous

Use extreme caution when using and storing windshield washer fluid. Both the summer and winter varieties contain methanol, which is poisonous in small doses and can cause blindness.

Keep it out of reach of children and pets, wash your hands after using it, and roll up the car windows before spraying it.

Image: Cathy Habas, SafeWise

Follow these steps to add windshield cleaning fluid to your car:

  1. Wait until the engine is cool.
  2. Pop the hood.
  3. Remove the yellow cap on the windshield washer fluid reservoir.
  4. Place a funnel in the reservoir.
  5. Pour the windshield washer fluid into the funnel.
  6. Stop when the fluid reaches the maximum fill line.
  7. Remove the funnel and replace the yellow cap.
  8. Clean the funnel, wash your hands, and store the remaining fluid in a childproof location.

Car light safety

Periodically check to make sure all of your car lights are still working. It’s not only unsafe to drive with car lights that aren’t working—it might also get you pulled over.

Checking for blown car lights

Ask someone to help you.

Stand in front of the car and ask your helper to turn on these lights:

  1. Headlights
  2. High beams or “brights”
  3. Left turn signal
  4. Right turn signal

Then, stand behind the car and ask your helper to turn on these lights:

  1. Headlights (this triggers the taillights to turn on)
  2. Left turn signal
  3. Right turn signal
  4. Brake lights
  5. Backup lights (the car must be put into reverse gear, but it doesn’t need to move)

It’s okay if you can’t tell the difference between backup lights and brake lights. If your helper runs through the five steps above and a particular lightbulb doesn’t turn on, it needs to be replaced.

Maintenance for car fire prevention

Most highway vehicle fires—excluding those caused by collisions—start because the engine or running gear overheats.1 And because vehicle fluids are flammable, anything that’s spilled on the engine increases the likelihood of a fire. Electrical shorts are another significant cause of vehicle fires.

Reduce the risk of a car fire with a few easy maintenance tasks:2 

  • Keep an eye on coolant levels and add more when needed.
  • Use a funnel when adding oil or any other fluid to your car, and clean up anything that spills onto the engine.
  • Inspect wiring and hoses. Replace anything that’s loose, damaged, or worn out.
  • Replace fuses that repeatedly blow.
  • Check tire tread and replace bald tires.

Keep a lightweight fire extinguisher in your car to snuff out small fires, or attach an automatic fire extinguisher under the hood. 

Cleaning and organizing your car for safety

Don’t store or drop anything in the driver’s side footwell. Objects can roll under the brake pedal and jam it, making it impossible to stop the car.

Strap or bolt down heavy objects like tool kits. In the event of an accident, these items can become projectiles and cause serious injury.

Car fluids and sharp objects should be stowed where kids can’t get at them. Use a car gun safe instead of a gun rack to keep firearms away from curious kids. 

Driving safely

Once your car’s in safe condition, it’s time to focus on your driving. We all get a little too comfortable behind the wheel sometimes.

Be safe before you even start the car

If you have to reverse out of your parking spot, walk behind the car first to make sure you won’t run over anything or anyone. Likewise, walk in front of the car if you have to drive out of your parking spot.

Once you get behind the wheel, follow the popular “Buckle up, phone down” mantra.

  • Buckle up: Seat belts lower your risk of dying in a car crash by 45%, and drivers are legally required to wear them in every state but New Hampshire.3
  • Phone down: Texting is one of the major causes of distracted driving and is illegal for drivers in all states except Missouri and Montana.4,5 Talking on the phone is also a significant distraction, even with hands-free devices or headphones.

Next, adjust your seat, steering wheel, and mirrors while parked. Turn on your headlights regardless of whether it’s sunny or not—it helps other drivers see you in all conditions.

Learn defensive vs. aggressive driving skills

Aggressive drivers endanger themselves and others by speeding, weaving in and out of traffic, lunging across lanes, tailgating slower drivers, and showing signs of road rage.

Aggressive drivers assume everyone else can see them and will get out of their way. In reality, their fast and unpredictable behavior can catch people by surprise and cause accidents. Defensive driving takes the opposite approach. Assume no one can see you and no one will get out of your way.

Defensive driving basics

  • Stick to the speed limit
  • Avoid distractions like eating, changing the radio, or fending off unrestrained pets
  • Give yourself plenty of space to react to other drivers
  • Don’t assume other drivers will stop at a red light or make a turn when their blinker is on—wait for them to actually stop or turn before making your move

Braking safely

  • Brake gently whenever possible to avoid getting rear-ended
  • Tap the brakes or get ready to slow down when you see brake lights ahead—even if it’s not the car directly in front of you
  • Signal a sudden deceleration or stop by tapping the brake pedal to flash your brake lights
  • Leave extra room for any kind of trailer—they cannot brake quickly

Changing lanes safely

  • Use your turn signals to indicate lane changes before moving over
  • Change lanes one at a time
  • Check your blind spots before moving over
  • Don’t linger in another driver’s blind spot
  • Stay out of the left lane unless actively passing another vehicle

Staying calm

Emotional control is another hallmark of a safe driver. Intense emotions like anger, sadness, or anxiety can distract you from the road ahead. Find a safe place to pull over and calm down so you can focus on driving safely.

Never try to retaliate against another driver, and don’t panic if you get lost.

Driving safely as you age

As you age, you may experience some physical changes and medical conditions that make it difficult to drive safely. Fortunately, there are gadgets to help you adapt and continue to drive in most circumstances.

For example, stiffness in the neck and shoulders makes it hard to look behind you when backing up or to check blind spots. Install rearview cameras or blind spot mirrors so you always know what’s going on around you.

Other common adaptations include steering wheel knobs and rotating cushions.

Recognizing unsafe driving conditions

Learn when to venture out with caution and when to stay off the road entirely.

  • Never drive while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Drunk driving is illegal and kills about 10,000 people per year.6 Choose a designated driver for the evening, use a rideshare service, or call a friend to take you home.
  • Stay off icy or snowy roads unless you absolutely have to go out. Learn some winter driving basics to keep yourself safe for emergency drives.
  • Slow down in the rain and other bad weather conditions that affect visibility and stability.
  • Avoid driving on alcohol-centric holidays like New Year’s and Mardi Gras. Drunk drivers are more likely to be on the road at these times.
  • Don’t drive while drowsy. It’s perfectly legal to park at a rest stop and sleep in your car. For a better night’s sleep, check into a hotel.
  • Don’t drive after taking medication that causes drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision, slowed reaction time, or excitability.7

Child passenger safety

Three-point seat belts and airbags are designed to protect adults, not children. Learn the latest child passenger safety standards to keep your loved ones safe.

Understand your state’s child seat laws

Every state has child passenger safety laws that dictate when your kids can legally transition from rear-facing seats to forward-facing seats to boosters to adult seat belts.

Never let a child under 12 ride in the front seat

Even if your state has relatively lax child seat laws, don’t allow your child in the front seat until they’re 12 years old.8 Whether they’re in a car seat, booster, or adult seat belt, all kids can be significantly injured by the front airbag.

Follow your car seat manufacturer’s guidelines

Car seat manufacturers publish a maximum height and weight for each of their products. Don’t let your child use a seat that they’ve outgrown.

You should also not use a car seat after its expiration date or if it’s been damaged in a crash. Avoid used car seats because their car-crash history is unknown.

Use a rear-facing seat as long as possible

Best extended-rear-facing car seat

Amazon.com list price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible.9 

“As long as possible” hinges on the car seat manufacturer’s height and weight limits. Some of the best extended-rear-facing car seats include the Evenflo Gold EveryStage and the Graco 4Ever DLX. 

Your state’s child safety laws may also determine when you turn your baby around to face forward in the car.

Install car seats correctly

Car seats must be tightly secured to the back seat of the car. Learn how to install a car seat correctly, and teach your loved ones how to do it too.

If you’re looking for the least amount of hassle, consider the UPPAbaby Mesa—our pick for easiest-to-use car seat.

Buckle up your child correctly

Five-point car seat harnesses include a chest clip that must be positioned on the child’s chest, not on their abdomen.

Do not buckle your child into a car seat while they wear a winter coat. Although the harness may seem tight, your child will slide forward in an accident once the coat compresses against the harness. Place a blanket on top of the harness to keep your child warm instead.

For older kids in booster seats, use lap- and shoulder-belt guides to ensure the belts fit correctly. As the name implies, the shoulder belt should touch the shoulder, not the neck. The lap belt should go across the hips so that the bottom edge touches the child’s lap—it’s too high up if it goes across the belly and doesn’t touch the thighs.10 

Don’t let kids share a seat belt

Because it’s impossible to get a seat belt to correctly fit two people at once, it’s not safe for kids to share a seat belt.

Use a car seat alarm

Best car seat alarm
Ride N Remind box

Amazon.com list price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

No one dreams of accidentally leaving their kid in the car, but it happens. And it can be fatal. Car seat alarms remind you that your most precious cargo is on board.

Use a car baby monitor

Car baby monitors can be as simple as a mirror placed on the backseat or as elaborate as an in-car camera. Use whatever works for you so you can check on your child at a glance without turning around.

Take breaks during road trips

As tempting as it is to let your baby sleep as long as possible during a road trip, take them out of their car seat every couple of hours, and let their body move and stretch. Use this time to change their diaper or breastfeed, neither of which should be done while the car’s in motion.

woman changing tire

Roadside emergencies

Spend enough time in a car and you’ll eventually have a roadside emergency. They’re never fun, but you’ll have a smoother experience if you have the right tools on hand and know who to call.

Creating a car emergency kit

Best car emergency kit
Top Gear
$40.72

Amazon.com list price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

Buy a pre-made car emergency kit, or assemble one yourself. It should include high-visibility gear, durable gloves, and tools like screwdrivers, ratchets, jumper cables, and duct tape.

Supplement the toolkit with a first-aid kit and a fire extinguisher. You may also want an emergency survival kit if you’ll be driving in remote areas and/or could get trapped in a snowstorm.

In the summer, pack a couple extra gallons of water and ready-made shade, like a big umbrella.

Calling for roadside assistance

Know who to call for roadside assistance if you can’t safely fix the problem yourself.

AAA is one of the most well-known roadside assistance memberships in the US, but it’s also expensive. Fortunately, it’s far from the only option.

Check with your car insurance agent to find out if you’re already paying for a roadside assistance service. Progressive, Geico, Nationwide, All State, and USAA are just a few insurance companies that will dispatch someone during your time of need.

Even AT&T offers roadside assistance to their phone customers.

Otherwise, consider Better World Club or an app-based service like Honk. Some personal safety apps like Bond include roadside assistance with their memberships, as do some vehicle trackers like Bouncie. Older adults can use their AARP membership for help on the road.

Staying safe while you wait for help

Assuming your car has been safely parked on the shoulder and isn’t on fire, it’s best to stay in your vehicle while you wait for the tow truck or mechanic. Turn on your flashers and keep your seat belt on.

If your car is blocking traffic, you can call the police to report the problem. They’ll use their lights to warn drivers to slow down and move over. Some police officers or state troopers can also help you with minor fixes like putting on a spare tire.

If you need to get out of the car to assess the problem, do so when there isn’t much traffic heading your way. Put on the reflective vest from your car emergency kit, and place the high-visibility triangles in a line behind your car.

When a tow truck arrives, make sure it’s from the correct company to avoid scammers.11 Likewise, don’t get in a stranger’s car.

steering wheel lock

Theft and break-in protection

Use a combination of safe habits and smart tech to prevent your car from being stolen. Read our car theft prevention guide for an in-depth action plan, or check out these popular anti-theft devices:

Take a few extra precautions to prevent your boat or RV from being stolen too.

Preventing a vehicle break-in

Removing all valuables from your car and locking the doors is the best way to prevent a vehicle break-in. With nothing to steal, there’s no reason for someone to risk getting caught breaking into your car.

Alternatively, store items in the trunk or under your seat. Clean up trash and paperwork in your car too. You might know it’s all worthless, but other people might be tempted to rifle through the mess to see if there’s any cash, identifying information, or valuables in the mix.

Sometimes hard-to-hide technology like GPS navigation systems are stolen during car break-ins. Take them with you whenever possible.

Dash cams are also a potential target; they’re not worth leaving in your car to try and catch footage of someone breaking in. Most dash cams store footage on an SD card rather than the cloud, so you won’t see any footage of the theft once a dash cam’s stolen.

Car safety features to look for

Some modern cars include accident-avoidance technology. Sensors positioned around the car help you stay aware of your surroundings with audio and visual alerts, and some cars even slow down or brake for you.

Familiarize yourself with these safety features before you head to the car lot.

Accident-avoidance alerts

  • Forward collision warning (FCW): tells you when you’re approaching the car in front of you too fast
  • Blind-spot warning (BSW): tells you when there’s a car in your blind spot
  • Pedestrian detection: tells you when there’s a person ahead
  • Rear cross-traffic alert: tells you when there’s a person or car behind you as you back up
  • Lane departure warning (LDW): tells you if you’re drifting out of your lane

Accident avoidance takeovers

  • Brake assist: The car brakes as hard as possible when it senses the driver’s “panic brake.”
  • Automatic emergency braking (AEB): When the FCW sensor detects a potential crash, the brakes engage automatically.
  • Adaptive cruise control: The car automatically maintains a safe distance behind the car in front of it.
  • Lane-keeping assist: The car gently guides itself back into the lane if you start to drift.

Other car safety features

If you’re considering a used car built before 1999, proceed with caution. It may not have some of the safety features we’ve come to expect in modern cars:

  • Front-impact airbags (mandated in 1999)
  • Anti-lock brakes (ABS; mandated in 2000)
  • Tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS; mandated in 2006)
  • Electronic stability control (ESC; mandated in 2012)

Some car manufacturers incorporated these safety features before they were mandated, so you may still get lucky with an older used car.

Car safety FAQ

There isn’t a straightforward answer. It’s true that 16- to 17-year-olds get into fatal crashes at a rate around three times higher than 18- to 19-year-olds,12 but it’s unclear whether this is due to age-related emotional immaturity or to inexperience behind the wheel.

It’s possible that raising the driving age to 18 would merely shift those fatal car crash statistics to a different age group.

Be sure to talk to your teen about driver responsibility to help them make smart choices.

Driving is actually the most dangerous form of travel in general, but some states are safer for drivers than others. Flying to your destination is the safest way to go, but not necessarily the most affordable.

Call 911 to report a drunk driver. The dispatcher will ask you to describe the car and its location.

Related articles on SafeWise


Sources

  1. U.S. Fire Administration, “Highway Vehicle Fires (2014–2016),” July 2018. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  2. Texas Department of Insurance, “Car Fires: What to Do in an Emergency and How to Prevent One,” August 2021. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  3. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Seat Belts,” April 2021. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  4. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Driver Electronic Device Use in 2020,” November 2021. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  5. Governors Highway Safety Association, “Distracted Driving Laws by State,” April 2021. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  6. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Drunk Driving.” Accessed January 17, 2022.
  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Some Medicines and Driving Don’t Mix,” March 2021. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Child Passenger Safety,” September 2021. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  9. American Academy of Pediatrics, “New Child Passenger Safety Seat Guidance Advises Kids to Ride Rear-Facing as Long as Possible; Drops Age Citation,” August 2018. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  10. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “Car Seat Safety: 4- to 8-Year-Old Children.” Accessed January 17, 2022.
  11. Jason Metz, Forbes, “Don’t Hook Up With a Bandit Tow Truck,” July 2020. Accessed January 17, 2022.
  12. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “Teenagers,” March 2021. Accessed January 17, 2022.
Disclaimers

*Product prices and availability are accurate as of post date and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on Amazon at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product. Safewise.com utilizes paid Amazon links.

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Cathy Habas
Written by
Cathy Habas
With over seven years of experience as a content writer, Cathy has a knack for untangling complex information. Her natural curiosity and ability to empathize help Cathy offer insightful, friendly advice. She believes in empowering readers who may not feel confident about a purchase, project, or topic. Cathy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Indiana University Southeast and began her professional writing career immediately after graduation. She has contributed to sites like Safety.com, Reviews.com, Hunker, and Thumbtack. Cathy’s pride and joy is her Appaloosa “Chacos.” She also likes to crochet while watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

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