Are you or your family in the market for a new set of wheels? Safety first! We've compiled a list of safety features to consider before you sign your next contract.

As a single guy, maybe you opt for a sports car--a two-seater with lots of freedom and flash but little room for more than a driver and a passenger. Your primary concern may be style, color, or speed. But if you have a family, your needs are different--more room, more comfort, and more security.

When you're strapping in car seats and juggling piles of items as you whisk the kids from soccer practice to overnight campouts, the realization sets in that you need a new car, and that the car you buy will need the maximum amount of safety for your family. As you stroll through the car lot looking at the newest models, or even used vehicles, keep the following list of safety features in mind:

Structural Design

Many different models look similar, but have key differences in their structural design. You'll want one that offers a strong compartment for passengers, and front and rear bumpers designed to buckle and bend to absorb the force of a serious crash. Familiarize yourself with crash test results and see how the model of your choice stands up to another maker's model. One good place to start your research is at ( ) which provides crash test results for all vehicles from 1980 to the present model year.

Seat Belts

It's a given that any vehicle you consider buying, unless it's really ancient, will have seat belts. Seat belts can be instrumental in protecting your family in the event of a crash. When you're car shopping, here are some of the seat belt features you may want to consider:

  • Are the shoulder belts adjustable? It will be more comfortable for you and your passengers if you can change the shoulder strap height.
  • Does the rear seat offer shoulder belts? This provides extra safety, especially for children who are riding in booster seats.
  • Do the seat belts have energy management features? These features allow the seat belts to "give" a little to prevent too much force on the chest area during a serious crash.

Air Bags

You've probably heard pros and cons about air bags. Just how important are they? Consider this fact: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates the risk of serious head injury is reduced by 81% with the combination of an airbag plus a lap/shoulder belt. That's compared with a 60% reduction for belts alone.

Air bags are not beneficial for all passengers. Small children or babies in car seats can be injured or even killed by front seat air bags. You should never put a rear-facing car seat in the front seat of a car with an air bag. Also, the NHTSA recommends that all children under the age of 12 ride only in the rear seats, and that they be buckled up no matter where they are sitting.

For the practical purposes of choosing a family vehicle, it's unlikely you'll choose one without a rear seat. However, your life situation may call for a pickup truck, which may not have a rear seat. If you need to put a car seat in the front of that pickup truck, and it has airbags, then you may request an on-off airbag switch for safety purposes. The rules for on-off switches are listed at the NHTSA's website.

Another consideration: the safest position for the driver is 10 inches away from the airbag. As you head out on a test drive, slide your seat back to the furthest comfortable point and see if you have 10 inches between yourself and the bag. On a related note, automakers are beginning to roll out models with side airbags that also offer head protection.

Running Daylights

You may only think of turning on your running lights when it turns dusk, but some new vehicles offer automatic daytime running lights. Some countries, like Canada, require cars to use running lights at all times, because it helps other drivers see you better.

Antilock Brakes

Antilock brakes are a common feature on many vehicles, but unfortunately, many drivers don't know how to use them. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says studies have shown that cars with antilock brakes are involved in more single-vehicle crashes than those with conventional brakes.

The Institute gives this advice on its website: "If you were trained to brake gently on slippery roads or pump your brakes to avoid a skid, you now have to "unlearn" old habits and use hard, continuous brake pressure to activate the antilock feature." Make sure that all the drivers in your family are familiar with antilock brakes and how to use them.

Car Seat Safety

Some new vehicles offer built-in child car seats, but you'll need to check the weight and height limits because they vary. If you choose to install a car seat, make sure you find out how to install it properly and learn how to buckle your baby correctly into the seat for maximum security.