Short of locking them in the basement, the best way to keep young drivers alive and well is to start with a well-maintained, properly equipped vehicle. To guide you in that task, we've culled 10 of the best tips that will also let your teens make smarter decisions, and help parents protect themselves.
Selecting the best vehicle for teens isn't within the scope of this article, but your short list should include models with electronic stability control, antilock brakes and less than 200 horsepower.
Fit the car with new tires and make sure they're properly inflated. If the tires have some miles on them, be certain to check the remaining tread depth. The legal minimum is 2/32nds of an inch, but a better gauge is the quarter test. Insert the coin with George's head down into the tire's shallowest groove. If you can see the top of Washington's wig, the tire has less than 4/32nds of an inch of tread and it's likely time for new rubber. (Read this article to get more information on properly maintaining your tires.) Underinflated new tires perform almost as poorly as bald tires. Make sure your tires are inflated per the manufacturer's recommendations, and do not rely on the newly mandated tire-pressure monitoring systems. (Read more to learn more about the shortcomings of tire-pressure monitoring systems).
2. Stop in the name of love.
Make sure the brakes work properly. This involves far more than checking the thickness of brake pads. Even modestly experienced amateur mechanics can "bleed the brakes"— flush the old fluid from the system — to make sure hidden problems are not developing. (Check a repair manual for the proper procedure.) If the old fluid is black or contains flecks of rubber or rust, a professional rebuild is required. Ask the pro to make sure the brake discs, brake lines and antilock braking system are in top condition.
3. Steer the right path.
Take your student's car to a professional to make sure the steering and suspension systems are in good shape. This is even more important if the car is long in the tooth. Worn bushings or ball joints will quickly wear out those new tires and the car will steer imprecisely. In the worst case, something could snap and the driver could lose steering ability.
4. See the right path.
It's impossible to avoid hazards if you can't see. The windshields of older cars are frequently pitted by sand and salt and may become opaque in some lighting. What does the windshield on your student's car look like? Depending on its condition, investing in a new one may be a smart move. And even newish cars probably need new windshield wiper blades. Rubber wears out, and depending on how harsh the climate is on campus, wiper blades should be replaced every semester. You can also coat the windows with a water-shedding product such as Rain-X, or fill the washer reservoir with a product designed to perform the same function. Clean the inside of the windows, as well as the mirrors.
5. Find the way.
If your student's car doesn't have a built-in GPS-based navigation system, invest in a portable model. Typically, these may be mounted to the windshield or dash. (Learn more about these portable nav systems here.) Teens tend to take stupid chances when they think they're late for something important such as meeting with a boy- or girlfriend. Also, stopping for directions in the not-so-good part of town might not be a wise option. Such satellite-based GPS devices are relatively inexpensive and should reduce stress and increase safety. Check out this article for our evaluation of four portable nav systems.
6. Want a moped?
Binge drinking and driving while intoxicated are common among underage high school and college students, and the statistics are scary: It's estimated that 60 percent of all teen driving deaths are alcohol-related. Additionally, a DUI conviction means a suspended license, so remind your student that if this fate befalls them, they'll be stuck riding the bus. In some states, those convicted of DUI are allowed to ride mopeds to and from school and work, but for the status-conscious teen, this could be a fate worse than the bus. Read more about the consequences of teen drunk driving.
7. Protect yourself.
Get adequate insurance coverage. Keep in mind that in many states, you'll be held financially responsible for your minor children if the minor is involved in an accident while driving your car. The minimum legal coverage may not be enough to cover your obligations in the event of a major catastrophe. You can usually get the best deals by adding your student to your existing policy, rather than having the vehicle insured separately in his or her name. Read more about car insurance for teen drivers.
8. Be prepared.
Put together an emergency roadside kit. At the minimum, fill a backpack with a flashlight, road flares, a reflective triangle, a space blanket, radiator stop-leak, a fire extinguisher, aerosol tire inflator, duct tape and a pair of old sneakers in case your student has to walk for help. If your teen goes to school in cold climes, add an old jacket and a sleeping bag.
9. Neither a lender nor borrower be.
A disturbing trend is teens loaning out their (your) car. Keep in mind that if an accident occurs with another kid at the wheel, you could be sued, just as if it were your own child who was driving. Loaning should be a bicycle offense. Let your student know that if they loan out the car one time (and you happen to find out about it), he or she will be bicycling for the rest of the term.
10. Tow properly.
Many college students must rent or borrow a trailer to get all their stuff to school. Safe trailer towing requires the proper hardware and a skilled driver. Some makers of SUVs require brakes on the trailer if the gross weight of the trailer — the trailer and all the stuff inside — exceeds 1,000 pounds. Keep in mind that trailers must be filled so that two-thirds of the weight is in front of the trailer's axle. Just because there's room in the trailer doesn't mean you can put more stuff in it. Your student can use the scales at a trailer rental location or truck stop to determine weight, and be sure to read your owner's manual for specific towing requirements.