Minivans and Safety
As a class, minivans are probably the safest light vehicles on the road. That distinction is shared with the growing number of car-based, or crossover, SUVs in the market, which share many of minivans' advantages regarding safety.
Children and Minivans
Safety Features to Look For
Safety Advantages: Big, Heavy and Stable
Minivans, as a class, are safe for several reasons. One is that they're large and heavy. Though the crash tests don't reflect it, weight is an advantage in a collision, all other things being equal. Conventional SUVs might be heavy, too, but they also have a higher center of gravity and are thus more prone to roll over — though not as much as they once were, thanks to the proliferation of electronic stability systems in SUVs. In June 2011, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that SUVs had gotten closer than ever to minivans, even when comparing vehicles of similar weight. Real-world fatality data for 2005-08 models revealed 28 driver deaths per million registered SUVs, compared with 25 minivan driver deaths per million, making minivans the safest body style. There were 56 car driver deaths and 52 pickup truck driver deaths per million registered vehicles over the same period.
Despite their weight, minivans also tend to be friendlier to any vehicle with which they collide. Because they ride lower, minivans contact a smaller vehicle bumper-to-bumper. This ensures that both vehicles' crumple zones engage and absorb the crash energy as best they can. Historically, SUVs have been known for overriding a car's strongest structure and plowing into the occupant compartment relatively unhindered, but the SUV class has improved in recent years. Back to top
Safety Disadvantages: Big, Heavy and Unwieldy
All of the minivan's safety drawbacks — like its advantages — relate to its size and weight. The minivan is a safe place to be in a collision, but it's not the best vehicle for avoiding one. It's not particularly nimble, and it can't squeeze past trouble as readily as a small car might. Though minivans are designed to brake in a reasonably short space, smaller and sportier cars can stop shorter.
Driver comfort is no small issue in a vehicle of this size. Some drivers find large vehicles unwieldy, and an uncomfortable or scared driver is never safe. Features such as tilt/telescoping steering wheels and adjustable pedals go a long way toward fitting drivers of vastly different sizes, but if the minivan's bigness out in traffic freaks you out, you might want to consider something smaller.
Visibility also can be an issue. Minivans ride higher than cars, and the combination of this and the low, sloping hoods on modern models make forward visibility quite good. Visibility to the rear is a mixed bag: The many windows help you see vehicles in your blind spots, but the vehicle's height hides lower-riding cars. The minivan's height is even more of a concern directly to the rear — a problem when backing up or trying to park, mainly because one could run into a child or the neighbor's petunias — either of which could result in bodily harm to someone. Aside from regular diligence, the best solution to this problem is a backup camera feature, followed by the more common beeping sonar park assist. Back to top
Children and Minivans
There is simply no safer passenger vehicle for children than a minivan. It's inherently safe, as discussed above, and its size and features provide safety beyond the obvious.
Room to work with child-safety seats: We used to think that buying a minivan in preparation for a second child was a bit of an overreaction, but experience has proved it's not such a bad idea. Children may be small, but child-safety seats are huge. Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends keeping the young'uns in booster seats to later years and larger sizes. Two such seats in the backseat of a regular car or wagon leave little space for anything else, let alone an adult.
Aside from the cushion real estate, a minivan's copious space and 360-degree second-row seat access also simplify child-safety-seat installation. On one level, Latch-compatible child-safety seats are superior simply because they're more likely to be installed correctly. Beyond that, there's no reason to believe they're safer than a properly installed, seat-belt-secured child-safety seat with a top-tether strap. The center of the backseat (second row) is the safest place for a child because it is as far as possible from all the car's boundaries, granting a lot of crush space to absorb impact from any direction. A minority of cars, SUVs and minivans offer lower Latch anchors in the center seating position. Only two are required, and they're usually provided in the outboard seats. If you're dead-set on using the Latch system in the center, you'll either have to choose a van that has an anchor pair in that position or seat your child closer to one side or the other.
Keeping the peace: Were you under the impression that the role of the van's three seat rows was to accommodate up to eight people? No, no, no. The idea is to seat one sibling alone in the second row, put the other alone in the third row and declare a demilitarized zone over the second-row backrest. This effectively de-escalates the conflict from a hot to a cold war and allows you to concentrate on driving rather than playing the U.N. If that's not a safety feature, what is? In that same vein, the rear entertainment system — widely available in minivans — is perhaps the best thing to happen to parent motorists in automotive history. Fire up a DVD or video game and you'll forget the rugrats are even back there. Thanks to cordless headphones, they're in their own little world and you can listen to the stereo up front. We've never met a parent who regretted buying this option. On the other hand, you and your kids might be just as happy with a laptop computer, tablet or smartphone for viewing and gaming purposes. It allows each child to have his own device and to bring it along in any other vehicle. Buy the factory option, and it's both permanent and incapable of updating over the years as formats change and screen sizes grow.
Power-sliding door safety: Some parents voice concerns about their children being injured by power-sliding doors. All such doors are designed to reverse if they hit an obstruction. The amount of pressure they apply varies from model to model; even the most vigorous is unlikely to injure a child, though it could give 'em a scare. If you're concerned, check out the Honda Odyssey, which in 2005 began to employ a highly touch-sensitive strip on the power doors' leading edges. You might consider going without the power feature, but children are one of the best reasons to buy it. When you have your arms full of kids and/or groceries, the power doors are a godsend. Likewise, small children haven't the strength to operate sliding doors, so power doors provide a one-button alternative to getting out of the driver's seat and opening the door manually.
Seat belts a must: It's a common misconception that seat belt use is unnecessary in the backseat. This is completely untrue. Aside from greater risk to the backseat occupants themselves, the Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that an unbelted rear-seat passenger increases the front-seat occupant's risk of death by 20 percent. Why? Because in a frontal collision at just 30 mph, an unbelted 120-pound backseat occupant will strike whatever's in front of him with the force of more than 1,000 pounds. Something about vans makes people want to roam around inside them when in motion. Keep it to a minimum.
Don't miss the information below about children and airbags. Back to top
Safety Features to Look For
ABS and electronic stability systems: Antilock brakes and electronic stability systems became standard on all minivans as of 2010 and are mandated on passenger vehicles of all styles as of the 2012 model year, but if you're considering a 2009 or older used models, be sure and check. For example, a stability system was optional on the 2009 Nissan Quest, and the 2009 Mazda5 didn't offer the feature at all. Antilock brakes shorten stopping distances in some situations, but their main benefit is they allow the driver to steer even when applying maximum braking. Known by innumerable names, most of which include the word "stability," computer-based electronic stability systems brake individual wheels and control the throttle to keep the vehicle on its intended path in low-traction situations.
Airbags aplenty: A full set of airbags can improve an occupant's survivability dramatically in a crash. Frontal airbags are required on all cars; the side-impact variety is not. Side airbags that deploy from the seatbacks generally are intended to protect the occupant's torso, though some extend higher for head protection — especially in the absence of side curtain airbags.
Side curtain airbags deploy downward from the ceiling, covering all the side windows, even in many three-row minivans. This kind of airbag has proved critical in protecting occupants, especially when T-boned by a higher-riding vehicle. This type of crash poses a high risk of head injury, which is the least survivable type of trauma.
There's little or no concern about side curtain airbags harming children. Conventional side-impact airbags, though, can be dangerous, so they seldom appear in minivan backseats. Never put a child-safety seat in the front passenger seat.
All new vehicles also feature advanced frontal airbags, which deploy at more than one level for occupants of different sizes. They employ an Occupant Classification System in the front passenger seat and crash-severity sensors to determine the correct airbag intensity. Advanced frontal airbags have been required in all cars and light trucks produced since September 2006.
Backup aid: To protect people and things behind the minivan, consider a backup camera (optional on all full-size models) or sonar-based park assist (available on many models) that beeps with tones of increasing frequency as the bumper approaches an object.
Head restraints: Not simply "headrests" for occupant comfort, head restraints are intended to protect against whiplash injuries, particularly in a rear-end collision. Buyers should look for head restraints — for every seating position — that extend high enough for the tallest likely occupant, and rest, or can be positioned, close to the head. Also check out the rear visibility when these restraints are raised. Increasingly, automakers implement tall restraints that can block the view. Lowering a restraint that was left in the raised position by a passenger — though inconvenient — might be a necessary practice.
Tilt/telescoping steering wheel: Aside from making the driver as comfortable as possible, the telescoping adjustment in particular helps distance the driver properly from the airbag, regardless of his or her size.
Adjustable pedals: Adjustable pedals serve a similar purpose as the telescoping steering wheel, allowing drivers to distance themselves optimally from the steering wheel and its airbag without compromising pedal reach. Having both features is the best-case scenario. Back to top