Consumer Reports auto expert Mike Quincy says first and foremost, get a car with electronic stability control (ESC).
"Consumer Reports has long been a big fan of stability control. We think it's the most important safety feature since the seatbelt," Quincy said.
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests show ESC helps drivers maintain control, but it was not introduced until 1995 and only on a few vehicles.
Next on the list are airbags. Attorney Brian Chase, who specializes in auto safety cases and has tested numerous vehicles for their safety features, says consumers should make sure the used car has airbags, including side-curtain airbags.
"If you're involved in a rollover accident in an SUV, a lot of times, your head will go out the window, and you will get killed. A side-curtain airbag will keep that from happening," Chase said.
Side-curtain airbags were introduced in 1998, so cars made before that will not have them.
Anti-lock brakes are another safety item to look for.
"Anti-lock brakes basically pump the brakes pads way way faster than you can," Quincy said. "It not only shortens the stopping distances, it allows you to maintain control of your vehicle."
In 1987, anti-lock brakes were standard or optional on several domestic and foreign car models.
The final safety item you should look for in used cars is a seatbelt, but not just any seatbelt. It should be a three-point lap-and-shoulder belt. There is an ongoing court case involving a woman who died while riding in a minivan in the rear middle seat and had on only a lap-belt.
In 1989, manufacturers had a choice of installing either lap or lap and shoulder belts, but experts say it's important to make sure that the vehicle you're thinking of buying has a three-point lap-and-shoulder belt for all passengers.