Cars for teenagersWhen it comes to teenagers, it’s not just about their safety as passengers, but their safety as new drivers.
Citing teenage “immaturity” and “inexperience,” the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) points out in sobering statistics just how dangerous it is for teens to be behind the wheel:
“Based on crashes of all severities, the crash rate per mile driven for 16- to 19-year-olds is four times the risk for drivers 20 and older. Risk is highest at age 16. The crash rate per mile driven is nearly twice as high for 16-year-olds as it is for 18- to 19-year-olds.”
The problem is made worse because teens are often passengers in cars driven by teens. As the IIHS points out: “Many teenagers die as passengers in motor vehicle crashes. Sixty percent of teenage passenger deaths in 2009 occurred in vehicles driven by another teenager. Among deaths of passengers of all ages, 18 percent occurred when a teenager was driving.”
In light of all this, what sort of vehicle should your teenager be driving?
Stockburger advocates what she calls a “Goldilocks approach”: a car that’s not too fast, not too slow, not too big, not too small. This may not describe what your kids would consider to be the coolest cars, but they’ll be safer until they’ve had time to gain experience as drivers.
By “not too fast,” Stockburger means that the car should accelerate from a stop to 60 miles per hour in no less than 8 seconds but not slower than 11 seconds. “There’s no need for young drivers to be in a car with a ton of power," she said. "It’s simply asking for trouble.”
By “not too slow,” Stockburger means that you want a car that can safely merge into traffic or pass safely, not one that lumbers along.
By “not too big,” Stockburger is not only talking about overall size, but also about how many passengers a vehicle can carry. Large SUVs and pickup trucks are not recommended for inexperienced drivers because they are often top-heavy, making them more difficult to control and more apt to roll over. Another problem with large SUVs, and this applies to minivans too, is that they encourage teens to carry lots of passengers. Statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that a new driver is at a three times greater risk for a fatal crash when three or more passengers are in the car than if they are driving alone. Although graduated licensing laws have reduced the number of passengers new drivers are allowed to have in a car, teens are still safer in a vehicle with fewer seats.
There is one advantage to mass of course—in a collision between two vehicles of different sizes, passengers in the smaller vehicle are at greater risk of injury. So, by not too small, Stockburger means no sports cars, because in addition to their speed, their size makes them less safe in a crash.
For a list of cars that Consumer Reports has tested and considers appropriate for young drivers see Cars for teen drivers.
Electronic stability control: A big plus
Stockburger also highly recommends cars featuring electronic stability control (ESC), especially on SUVs. ESC selectively applies the brakes to the appropriate wheel when it senses the vehicle is sliding out of control and helps to keep the vehicle going in the direction in which it is steered. It can help avoid an accident in all kinds of weather and is especially valuable in slippery conditions and when swerving to avoid an accident. It can also prevent an SUV from getting into a situation where it could roll over.
So how much of a game-changer is ESC? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is quite clear: “In Institute studies, ESC has been found to reduce fatal single-vehicle crash risk by 49 percent and fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk by 20 percent for cars and SUVs. Many single-vehicle crashes involve rolling over, and ESC effectiveness in preventing rollovers is even more dramatic. It reduces the risk of fatal single-vehicle rollovers by 75 percent for SUVs and by 72 percent for cars.”
ESC, by the way, is now required standard equipment on all 2012 and later cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs. In light of “teen driving skills just not being there yet,” Stockburger describes ESC as potentially “the biggest lifesaver since seatbelts.”
It’s common for parents to pass along their old car to their teen when they buy a new car for themselves. “But if you really want your kid to be safer,” Stockburger said, “your kid should be driving the newer, safer car, while you continue using the old one. Pure safety would say to give your kid the new car.”
That said, Stockburger readily acknowledges that such a move would have an effect on your insurance rates as a new driver driving a new car will almost certainly cost more than a new driver in an old car.
In any event, Stockburger advises parents to “buy as many safety features as you possibly can afford,” with ESC being a key one.
Thomas McKavanagh, of Eastchester, N.Y., is sorting out his options as he weighs what sort of used car to buy his 16-year-old daughter.
Along with being affordable and dependable, the vehicle must have safety features “that will protect her," McKavanagh said. "It’s got to be something safe,” he continued, “but how do I quantify that?”
Recognizing that whatever car he buys will likely be involved “in a fender bender, at least,” this circumspect dad is looking for a car that is nimble and strong, one that can avoid and withstand accidents.
With that in mind, McKavanagh—he drives a 2010 Honda Insight, while his wife has a 2006 Toyota Matrix—is considering a late model Volvo or Saab.
Even so, it’s not his dream car for his daughter.
“What I’d really like to get her is a one-seater tank that gets great gas mileage,” McKavanagh.
Make a pact
Apart from the car, another way to promote safety with teen drivers is through a “driver contract”—an agreement between parents and the teen that lays out at the beginning of the driver’s driving experience the consequences of not living up to the agreement.
Such contracts can cover topics ranging from passengers allowed in the car, alcohol, safety belts, cell phones, and stereos, to the ramifications of speeding, crashing, and getting tickets.
Violating the contract can result in a range of consequences from the suspension of “independent driving” to a return to a “learner’s permit” status to the revoking of a teen’s driving privileges. The terms of the agreement and the consequences are up to the parents and the teen.
Along with the car, and such measures as driver contracts, Stockburger stresses that parents must serve as role models when it comes to driving.
“Be an example,” Stockburger said. “How you drive will influence how your kids will drive.”
Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.