Why the safest car for a teen driver may be a big SUV

Giving a set of keys to a teen-ager can flood the parent of even the most cautious new driver with fear. Now a new study shows that the safest kind of vehicle for teen drivers might be a big sport utility vehicle.

The research comes from the Highway Loss Data Institute, a firm run by insurance companies to find ways of reducing crashes and deaths. Using five years’ worth of insurance claims from 2005 to 2010, the HLDI compared the collision rates between adults drivers between 35 and 60 years old and teen drivers between the ages of 16 and 19.

Regardless of the kind of vehicle involved, the HLDI logically found that teens had accidents at a higher rate than adults. For the sliver of teen-agers who somehow find their way to the seat of a supersport motorcycle, the institute found they were more than four times as likely to get into a crash than an older driver. In vehicles with four wheels, teen drivers were up to 2.5 times more likely to have an accident in sports cars.

What surprised researchers was that the crash rate for teens in small cars of all types was still much higher than average — roughly twice as high as adults in the same vehicles, and only slightly lower than the rise of driving a regular motorcycle.  Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of HLDI, said in an institute report that small cars may be less forgiving in sudden maneuvers, or that teens may be encouraged to take more risks due to the car’s size.

The lowest risk vehicle for a teen driver? Large and luxury SUVs, where the crash rates for youths were as little as 10% greater than for adults, and posed a lower crash risk than all but the largest cars.

The reason for the gap? Technology. The HLDI study analyzed claims from vehicles newer than the 2006 model year. By that time, large SUVs came standard with electronic stability control — systems that keep vehicles from skidding in emergency maneuvers which has been shown to drastically reduce crashes — while in many cars the tech was still an option, especially smaller, cheaper models that teens often drive. As of the 2012 model year, all vehicles sold in the United States are required by law to offer ESC standard.

Other HLDI studies have shown newer SUVs also do a better job of protecting passengers from injuries and death in crashes than smaller cars and pickups. It defies parental logic to think the safest ride for a 16-year-old might be a two-ton truck, and no vehicle can keep all reckless drivers from harming themselves or others, but for some teens the best answer to driving safely may be to go big.

Photo: Claire Thompson via Flickr