Safety should be the major consideration when buying a car. While there are standardised ratings for new cars, it can be trickier to know how older cars are faring. However, you can learn the general safety performance of used cars with Used Car Safety Ratings (UCSR).
Always do your due diligence when buying a used car, and consider taking a qualified inspector to check the car over professionally.
What are Used Car Safety Ratings?
UCSRs are based on data from 8.8 million real-world incidents where someone was killed or seriously injured. Statistics were sourced from police across Australia and New Zealand. This information was used to estimate a safety rating based on how well the vehicle protected both drivers.
It is possible that less popular cars and fairly recent models may not be rated. For these vehicles, you should check the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) rating.
How do USCRs compare to ANCAP safety ratings?
ANCAP ratings are for new vehicles and are produced under laboratory conditions. Each vehicle is put through a range of crash tests and a score is generated.
UCSRs are based on the actual safety performance of a car in real-world, public road accidents. UCSRs are also useful for old cars where there is no ANCAP rating. The ANCAP ratings include front and rear passenger test data in their ratings.
How are Used Car Safety Ratings calculated?
UCSRs use an international standard to determine a car's safety score. The rating is calculated based on the car's mass, structural design and safety features. Other factors that affect crash severity and level of injury, such as the driver's age and gender as well as the crash location, are taken into account so that the independent rating is based only on the car's performance.
How else can you judge the safety of a used car?
Modern cars have a range of safety features. Here are some of the common ones:
- Front airbags. These help protect the driver and front passenger during a head-on collision.
- Curtain airbags. Curtain airbags protect the head from striking the side door, window or external objects during a side collision.
- Reverse parking camera. A camera, often with static or dynamic guidelines, that helps the driver see into their blind spot. Some vehicles have front cameras and 360° systems.
- Parking sensors. Parking sensors, commonly installed on the rear (but also available for the front of the vehicle from certain car brands), act as an extra set of eyes. Using ultrasonic or electromagnetic sensors, the car can detect obstacles. This is often relayed to the driver through a constant audible tone that changes as they near the object, as well as a graphic that shows the approximate location and distance.
- Electronic Stability Control (ESC). This feature helps reduce skidding and loss of control due to oversteering by individually braking the wheels.
- Lane Departure Warning (LDW). If you start to drift from your lane, without the indicator on, this system will sound an alert.
- Lane Keep Assist (LKA). Like Lane Departure Warning, LKA aims to help a driver remain in the lane. It does this by physically steering the car back to the centre of the lane, or by applying the brakes on one side to straighten the vehicle out. Also called a Lane Support System.
- Driver Attention Warning (DAW). DAW can monitor the driver, and their vehicle inputs, for signs of fatigue.
- Traction control (TC). Traction control slows wheel rotation by optimising road grip, either through braking or the engine.
- Auto Emergency Braking (AEB). This feature can alert the driver to imminent impacts and apply the brakes independently if the driver doesn't react.
- Blind Spot Warning/Monitoring (BSW/BSM). Sensors will monitor areas that the driver can't see to provide them with a visual or audio warning if a vehicle or object is detected.
- Seatbelts. Seatbelts protect passengers and drivers from being thrown out of the vehicle during a collision.
- Crumple zones. These zones help absorb impacts and reduce the force of collisions.
- Post-Collision Braking. Once you've had a smash, a car with Post-Collision Braking applies the brakes to mitigate your car rolling and suffering a successive crash.
While price is always a consideration when buying a car, safety should be the priority. There are safer cars available at all price points. Research suggests that a driver of one of the worst-rated cars is 6 times more likely to die or be seriously injured than someone driving the highest-rated vehicle.
Used Car Safety Ratings and rust
Steel. It's a versatile material used extensively in modern car construction, but it does have a weakness. When left unprotected, the iron in the metal begins to oxidise forming rust. As the rust starts to take hold, components begin to corrode and lose integrity. Eventually, parts can fail.
In 2018, Swedish insurance company Villaägarnas Riksförbund commissioned ANCAP's European counterpart to crash test older, rusty vehicles. The results were sobering.
Rust causes weakness in used cars
Researchers showed that rust causes metal to lose structural integrity and become weakened. So an older vehicle doesn't perform as it did when initially crash tested. This problem is further compounded when you consider ageing models feature fewer modern safety technologies.
A rusty older car presents 20% higher death risk
A Mazda6 underwent the test.
In a frontal impact collision, the crash test dummy's head made contact with the steering wheel after the airbag bottomed out. The dummy then bounced off the wheel into the door upright. The car's body shell deformed in an unexpected manner and the floor caused lower leg injuries when spot welds failed and separated. Crash engineers noted that a weak floor could allow objects to pierce the vehicle's underside and enter the cabin, with obvious disastrous consequences.
Over the decade since production ceased, Mazda's sedan dropped from a 4 out of 5 to a weaker 3 points. In total, it shed 8 points on NCAP's scoring system.
Researchers concluded that in a heavily corroded vehicle, occupants had a 20% higher likelihood of dying in a crash.
Importantly, the laboratory tested both cars to the same standards as when they were new, not to more recent and stringent evaluations.
Manufacturers apply anti-corrosion paints and surface treatments to crucial components at the factory, but eventually stone chips and wear cause coatings to break down. Drivers living on the coast will suffer accelerated oxidisation, thanks to a high salt content in the air. Vehicles used to launch boats and those driven onto the beach also experience accelerated rusting.
You can identify rust by bubbling, flaky paint and a red/brown pitting. Rust generally starts small but gets worse if left untreated. If you are buying a car, you must look underneath the body and examine the condition of structural metal components. If you see ragged holes and lots of loose corrosion, the car may be too far gone.
It's possible to use a hammer (or another metal tool, like a screwdriver) to gauge the condition of the underlying metal. If you tap the steel and it produces a sharp, defined ring, the metal should be in sound condition. If tapping makes a dull thud, the steel has most likely started corroding.
Once the rust on a body panel or vehicle component reaches a certain point, it will need replacing (or repairing by a professional welder). You are far better off preventing rust by taking some simple precautions.
- If you drive in sea water or even on the beach, take time to wash the vehicle off with fresh water. This eliminates salt which is a catalyst for oxidisation. Pay particular attention to the underside of your vehicle too (though watch out for electronics and wiring).
- If you spot surface rust (light rust) on the underside of the vehicle, wash and dry the area. Then abrade the surface to remove pitting and flakes, and overpaint with a corrosion inhibitor and anti-corrosion primer/topcoat. Look for marine-grade products as these often perform the best.
- Coating nuts and bolts with a non-metallic lubricant can ward off rust and make removal easier. There are also anti-corrosion sprays available.
- If you notice a window, door or seal is leaking, get it fixed right away!
Newer cars are safer
Research shows that newer vehicles are statistically safer. You can use our car loan comparison to find a great deal on a modern car.
Drivers will find our article on what happens to your body in a car crash an eye-opening read.
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