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Finding out how safe your car is — even before you buy

Baltimore Sun

Multiple mea culpas from Toyota executives about sticky gas pedals and sudden acceleration might not be enough to appease critics, but the debacle could have a positive impact on buying habits.

"The Toyota recall created an awareness of safety," says Jeff Bartlett, online automotive editor at Consumer Reports.

While safety should always be a major factor when selecting a vehicle, frightening tales about drivers whose Toyotas accelerated for no apparent reason have driven that point home. And if you're in the market for a vehicle, there are many places to look for safety information.

Automotive experts advise that consumers shouldn't hit the panic pedal. Vehicles are safer than ever based on crash tests and fatality data, and even Toyotas statistically remain very safe vehicles, Bartlett says. And though the Toyota recall of more than 8 million vehicles is unusual in its size, recalls are common among manufacturers.

"A recall doesn't mean the car is unsafe. A recall, by definition, is a problem identified and a fix determined," Bartlett says. "For the most part, it's a good thing."

But safety first. Here are some resources:

•Safercar.gov offers one-stop-shopping for information on government crash tests, recalls and defects, safety tips and how to file a complaint about a vehicle.

The government uses a five-star system to rate the safety of vehicles based on the likelihood of serious injury in head-on and side collisions, as well as roll-overs. The more stars the better, and many vehicles are top-rated with four or five stars.

You should note that some critics say manufacturers build to the test, and there's talk that the government needs to raise the bar, says Karl Brauer, editor in chief for the automotive site Edmunds.com.

The site also posts consumer complaints about vehicles sent to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, though reading complaints might not be that helpful. Some are valid; others appear to be operator problems, Brauer says.

•The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety runs crash tests, too. The criteria are more stringent, and the tests are harder to pass than the government's, Bartlett says. Find the results at iihs.org.

•Consumer Reports published last week its annual automotive issue, which also includes safety ratings. The magazine buys about 80 vehicles and puts them through more than 50 tests, such as how they handle during maneuvers to avoid accidents and how brakes work in wet and dry conditions. Plus, it has reliability data on 1.4 million vehicles from its subscribers.

Much of the information is free online at consumerreports.org, although some details are available only if you pay for access or buy the magazine.

While you're at it, check out some of the crash test videos on the site for free. "It's morbidly fascinating but pretty valuable," Bartlett says. "Once you look at that, you will never buy a car that isn't rated good."

•Used-car buyers should check out the CarFax report that provides a vehicle's history, including damages from accidents and flooding. CarFax gets its information from motor vehicle agencies, police and fire departments, auto auctions, rental agencies and other sources. Dealers usually give customers a free copy of the report. You can also buy reports at carfax.com for $35 for a single report or $45 for five. You'll need the vehicle identification number.

A CarFax report is helpful, but "don't think it's perfect," says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. Information can be missing because not all accidents and damages are reported, and some states don't share data, he says.

Before buying a used car, take it to a trustworthy mechanic for a checkup.

•Edmunds.com offers ratings, reviews and other information for car shoppers. You can also join one of the many Internet forums, where discussions range from the pros and cons of particular models to Toyota's troubles.

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