Safety was the last thing on my mind when I got my first car. It was a Mk III Cortina I called The Beast because it weighed a tonne and handled like a drunken dray. But it was all mine and, as long as my Foodtown job kept a splash of gas in the tank, I could go anywhere.
As for safe, well, when changing from third to fourth the gear stick wasn't so much loose as completely detachable. To me it was more of a quirk than a risk - but then, that was a time when car advertisements rarely mentioned safety, or fuel economy, for that matter. Buying a car was about freedom, comfort and feeling cool.
The only concession to safety was a rug splayed over the back seat to stop the upholstery burning your legs in summer, otherwise any thoughts on responsibility for yourself or fellow drivers was strictly for wowsers.
If you think the ban on phone use while driving is taking some time to bed into our brains, you might want to reflect on the fuss in 1972 when seat belts became compulsory.
Seat belts? Surely, they're a no-brainer? Hell no, the naysayers complained. How can we feel all Easy Rider when we're chained to our seats?
It was an attitude that reflected a "what are you gonna do?" shrug over the road toll. If you fret when hearing there have been 213 deaths on New Zealand roads so far this year, up on the total for all of 2013, it's nothing compared to 1973, when we set a dubious record of 843 (and that was with seat belts and when fewer than the half the current number of cars were on the road.)
So, it's not only our cars that have evolved, it's also our attitude toward using them.
Selecting a new one now involves much more than taking your dad along to kick the tyres. Actually, dads are almost redundant now. As with everything else in life, it's all there on the net.
Sites such as rightcar.govt.nz provide chapter and verse on just about every vehicle type available in the country, along with pages of safety advice and links to further sites. Cars' safety ratings are drawn from the efforts of the independent Australasian New Car Assessment Programme (ANCAP) and the Vehicle Safety Research Group, which have collated records from more than seven million traffic accidents on either side of the Tasman. Ratings are also given for fuel economy, air pollution and carbon dioxide production.
But what does all this tell you? Well, let's take my present car, a 2002 Toyota Camry Touring Sedan. While it's nowhere near as cool as my dear old Cortina or 1984 VK Commodore - an undeniable Antipodean classic - at least it's got airbags, so my guess is it's the safest car I've ever owned. Yet Rightcar gives it three stars from five (or 21.79 out of 34) for keeping me in one piece. (It must be noted, this is mostly due to the age of my car - vehicles made after 2003 fare far better due to new safety features introduced.)
Would I still have bought one that old if I'd known? Well, it's got a silly go-fast fin on the back and I've never owned a car with a fin.
Still, getting a second opinion is always a good idea and the AA provides a similar, if less detailed, service in which they recommend some models and years as safe picks.
Again, my now put-upon old car scores just three stars.
A different set of practical advice can be found at consumer.org.nz, where they discuss the wisdom of trading up your car, followed by a downloadable five-step guide to buying and the results of their own survey on the reliability of a wide variety of models.
For what it's worth, my car is average, while top spot across all age/size ranges goes to a variety of Japanese cars such as the Toyota Corolla, Honda Jazz and Mitsubishi ASX. As for potential problems, the most common complaint is electrical failure, with brakes second - although as they naturally wear out, Consumer believes that result was probably overstated.
But none of this helps with one vital detail: colour, the second most important decision in any car purchase.
Obviously, the default should be red because science tells us it's fastest, but some people treasure visibility over speed. If white is by far the most popular car colour in the world, it isn't the safest and statistically has the same crash risk as blue and red.
No, it would appear that the safest colours are silver, yellow and, oddly enough, pink. Pink cars are almost never involved in crashes, possibly because the biggest danger group, young men, would rather go boy racing on a tricycle than in a pink car.
A notable exception to this, though, would be a Ford Prefect from the 70s called the Pink Pussycat, the scourge of Waikaraka Park's stockcar scene.
As another aside, the numbers indicate yellow cars are also the least likely to be stolen.
Anyway, at the other end of the crash spectrum, browns and other earth tones of the 70s appear to be very good for seeing more of your insurance agent while blacks, charcoals and midnight grey aren't well suited to anyone planning to do their driving at night, but we can probably work that out for ourselves.
Silver is one of the safest car colours. Photo / Getty Images
Then there's the matter of passengers, especially if you're in the market for a family wagon. In this case, Plunket recommends paying particular attention to the seats because your new purchase will be next to useless if your child seats don't fit or if the back seat isn't wide enough to fit your entire brood.
So, it may not be the coolest look on the lot, but carrying a child seat with you when you go looking will save a lot of pain. You can even borrow one from Plunket, if necessary.
They also suggest checking the front passenger seat's movement if you're fitting a rear-facing carseat, to make sure whoever is sitting behind baby has leg room.
Leg room is also an issue if they're facing forward - front seats out of kicking range are a very good thing indeed.
So, you've found a car that's safe as houses and comes in a reassuring shade of pink, is that it? I'm afraid the bad news is that the most dangerous feature of your car will always be you and, until cars become self-driving, there's nothing that can be done about that.
According to a Ministry of Transport report into all vehicle accidents in 2012, the biggest contribution from car design to collisions was blind spots and, while it is possible that roading plays a part in the enormous number of accidents, human failings are more likely to blame.
Let's put it this way: 72 accidents were the results of drivers using the wrong pedals, 174 were down to smoking or adjusting radios, 89 people had accidents while emotionally upset and another 122 were too busy chatting. In contrast, the total of all accidents that involved anything to do with brakes, lights, steering or windscreens was 102.
Car manufacturers can do only so much.