NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
These days, auto companies tout their crash-test ratings and advanced safety features in ads because they think safety sells. But might they be better off hawking cruise control and a full-sized spare tire?
According to a recent survey by Consumer Reports, the highest ranked safety feature, anti-lock brakes, came in fourth in desirability after air-conditioning, a radio and a CD player.
That next most popular safety feature, side airbags, came in 11th. It ranked lower than a full-sized spare tire, cruise control and power mirrors.
Electronic stability control, which some experts call the most important auto safety technology to be introduced in decades, ranked 20th, lower than a tilt steering wheel or power adjustable seats.
Side airbags, particularly side airbags that protect occupants' heads, have been shown to reduce fatalities in real-world crashes. So has electronic stability control, a feature that prevents vehicles from skidding out of control during abrupt driving maneuvers.
"Side airbags with head protection and electronic stability control are in a class of safety feature that is extremely rare," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "These are features that reduce the risk of death by significant margins."
For anti-lock brakes, data is inconclusive as to whether it actually helps reduce accidents or fatalities in real-world conditions, said Rader.
Crash-test ratings from the federal government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety do get consumer's attention, according to Robert Gentile, associate director of Consumer Reports' auto-pricing service. Buyers will look for a car with five-star crash-test ratings from the government or a "G" rating (for "Good") from the IIHS.
That's not a bad idea, Rader agreed. But shoppers need to be aware of whether they're looking at crash-test results for vehicles with or without side airbags or stability control. And, if they are looking at test results for vehicles without those features, they should look for them as options.
"Don't stop at just choosing the model," said Gentile, "but think about (safety) when equipping the vehicle as well"
Safety features to look for
Anti-lock brakes -- When wheels "lock up" -- or stop turning while the vehicle is still moving, causing a skid -- the driver has no way to control the vehicle. Anti-lock brakes prevents this by rapidly pulsing the brake pressure when computers sense that wheels are about to lock. That way the driver still has full steering control even in a panic stop.
Real-world statistics have shown little actual effect on real-world accident and fatality rates, though. Anti-lock brakes seem to prevent some crashes at the risk of drivers steering their cars off the road.
Consumer Reports still recommends Anti-lock brakes because it can prevent accidents provided the driver is aware of the system and understands what it does. "Stomp, stand and steer" is the standard advice. Anti-lock brakes means you don't have to pump the brakes or go easy on them. In an emergency, stand on the brake pedal and maneuver the car as you normally would. Don't expect it to skid.
Side airbags -- Not all side airbags are created equal. Side airbags that protect the head are particularly important and have been shown to significantly reduce fatalities. Non-head-protecting side airbags have shown a much smaller effect.
There are various styles of head-protecting side airbags including inflatable curtains that come down from the roof and ones that pop out of the sides of the seats. Either way, look for ones that protect occupants heads, not just their bodies.
Electronic Stability Control -- This feature goes by various trademarked names depending on the car company. In General Motors cars, it's called StabiliTrak. In Ford SUVs, its called RSC for "Roll Stability Control." In Chrysler vehicles it's called ESP for "Electronic Stability Program."
The confusion caused by the variety of names could be part of the reason more consumers don't seek out ESC, both Gentile and Rader said.
These systems use an array of sensors to detect when a vehicle is about to tip over or, more commonly, skid out of control during an abrupt turn. (The vast majority of SUV rollovers begin as a skid. The vehicle then rolls over when it hits a curb or goes sideways off the road.)
When sensors detect trouble, power from the engine is instantly reduced and brakes are automatically applied at individual wheels to bring the vehicle back under control. This usually happens before the driver is even aware there was a problem.
ESC is standard equipment on many SUVs these days and is offered, at least as an option, on most. It's important technology on all types of vehicles, though, since wipe-outs don't just happen in SUVs.
How to shop for a safe car
How to look at the ratings to decide which vehicle protects you best in a crash.