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Government study measures the risk of crash for clunkers

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Potential bidders browse through some of about 500 vintage cars and trucks during a preview for an auction of former Lambrecht Chevrolet dealership vehicles in Pierce, Neb.

The older a car is, the more likely its driver will die in a crash, says a new research paper from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It’s always reassuring when scientists prove the obvious, in this case that a brand-new car is safer than an old rust-bucket. But what’s not obvious at all, in this case, is how much more extra risk you take on with older-generation cars. It turns out that a driver of a car 18 or more years old is 71 percent more likely to die in a bad crash than the driver of a car three years old or newer. That’s pretty sobering—especially for parents looking to put their newly-minted teenage driver in an affordable used car.

The association of fatality risk with vehicle age recedes quite smoothly with newer and newer models, at least in this study, which confined itself only to fatal crashes. The risk to a driver in a vehicle 8 to 11 years old, for example, is only 19 percent worse, and driving one 4 to 7 years old only 10 percent worse, than for drivers in those semi-new, 0-to-3-year-old cars. This “newness benefit” is worth bearing in mind if you’re considering buying an older used car for yourself or a family member.

The study authors adjusted for the effects of numerous variables, such as driver age, blood alcohol content, time of day, speeding, type of road, and so forth. One variable that stands out in a big way is safety-belt use. Wearing a belt improves the odds of crash survival in any age of car but more so the newer the car is.

Failing to buckle up, it turns out, removes most of the benefit of driving a newer car. In this study of fatal crashes, the odds of a belted driver being killed dropped from 46 percent in 19-year-old cars to 26 percent in the newest cars.  For unrestrained drivers, the odds of being killed started at 78 percent but dropped only to 72 percent. Regardless of the age of your car, then, you’re just much, much better off when you wear your safety belt.

For more on vehicle safety, see our special section.

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