Choosing the Safest Car for Your Teen Driver
Size, Power and High-Tech Features Make the Difference
Sure, they're more likely to wreck the family car than any other member of your brood, but that's precisely why the teen drivers in the house need to be driving the safest car, which likely means a newer model.
What?!? It may seem counterintuitive, not to mention costly, but the argument for the "good" car going to the teen driver makes the most safety sense.
"If parents can afford a new vehicle, they should get one because newer vehicles tend to be safer in terms of crashworthiness and they're more likely to have important safety equipment such as side airbags," said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
After all, teen drivers are far more likely to have a fatal crash than adults. When they do crash, they are the most likely to have single-vehicle, run-off-the-road crashes, which often involve rollovers. That means they're the ones who really need stability control and side curtain airbags.
"Vehicle choice does matter," said J. Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "So discuss it in a serious way. Use it as another means to have a conversation with your teen."
That's exactly what happened in the home of Dr. Art Kellerman, a professor who chairs the Department of Emergency Medicine at Atlanta's Emory University. He had seen the ramifications of bad vehicle choices too many times in his emergency room to let his 17-year-old son get the kind of car he wanted. The pair sat down with their lists of priorities. His son wanted power, looks and a good sound system. Dad wanted "safety, safety, reliability and economy."
Fortunately, Dad won, and the two agreed on a four-cylinder Honda Accord with side airbags and curtains. His only concession was a coupe to appeal to his son's styling preferences. A year after he bought the car, his son was T-boned at high speed at an intersection with a blind curve. Both the side bags and curtains deployed, preventing brain and other injuries, Kellerman says.
"That was the best money I ever spent," says Kellerman. "You can always buy another car, but you can't buy another kid."
Of course, this doesn't mean we're suggesting you hand over the keys to the BMW 7 Series or the Range Rover either. When it comes to the safest cars, there are three key things to consider for your teen driver.
Size Means Safety
It's true for all of us. It's especially true for young people, though — a mid- or larger-size car could be the difference between life and death in a crash.
"Don't buy the argument that you need something highly maneuverable and small," says Kissinger. "You simply don't have the skills to do that when you're a teenager."
Besides, there's no evidence that small cars make up in agility what they lack in size. You don't have to look any further than an IIHS report on driver death rates for proof. The list of 16 models with the highest rates includes 11 small cars.
Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief Jeffrey Runge, a former emergency room physician, recommended vehicles weighing at least 3,300 pounds for teen drivers. That rules out compact cars and most small models and is a good general rule when choosing what class of vehicle to shop in. Some good choices for teen drivers, like some versions of the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, weigh in slightly under 3,300 but still shouldn't be ruled out.
Keep in mind that even a small car that earns five stars in most crash tests is only being judged in how well it protects in a crash with a similar-size vehicle. "A bigger vehicle protects in any type of crash," says McCartt. "The mantra for teens is big and boring."
State Farm Insurance has found that more than a third of teen drivers are in subcompact or compact cars and that drivers 20 or older were only half as likely to be in these very small vehicles. That's a mistake, says Kissinger. "You want a car that isn't so small they're going to automatically lose if they get into a crash, especially if they hit a larger vehicle."
Big, yes, but SUVs are generally not a good idea for teens, most safety experts say. Although these light trucks have low death rates as a group, they can also be difficult for anyone to handle in emergencies — they are required to carry a label on the visor warning that "abrupt maneuvers" should be avoided. "As a general rule I don't think SUVs are a great idea when learning to drive — and certainly not an older SUV that doesn't have ESC (electronic stability control) and tends to roll over," says Kissinger.
Speed Does Kill
All of that could suggest to some that the Big Bimmer would be perfect. Not so fast. The second key to choosing the right car is remembering that a lot of horsepower can be a deadly temptation for a teen. Teens are the most likely to take risks behind the wheel so the last thing a car should do is encourage more risk-taking.
"If you have a choice, choose one that has less power than a sporty version," says Kissinger. Indeed, the IIHS's recent report on vehicle death rates not only found that small cars had the highest death toll, it found that among small cars, sporty cars had the highest death toll.
AAA recommends parents rule out both the quickest and slowest vehicle as unsafe - the latter could actually cause problems by being too pokey during lane changes or highway merges. Jack Peet, manager of community safety services for AAA Michigan, says vehicles that accelerate from zero to 60 mph in anywhere from eight to 11 seconds are safe bets for teens. Many car lovers will find that anathema to everything they stand for, but it's not a bad rule of thumb. Hey, a four-cylinder Toyota Camry will still get them where they're going!
"In the old days it was pretty easy: Everybody recommended getting a 240 Volvo," says Kissinger. "Now there are a lot more choices, but you still want a run-of-the-mill boring car — which is a problem, because that's not what teens want to drive."
Crashworthiness and Crash Avoidance
As when choosing any car, it's wise to check crash tests scores from the government and the IIHS. Go to Safercar.gov to find the NHTSA crash test results and check the IIHS site for its ratings and recommendations. As for equipment, getting a car equipped with driver and passenger airbags and antilock brakes should go without saying. Side airbags and side curtain airbags — which deploy down from the roof rail to protect the head — are highly recommended. And stability control, which becomes mandatory on all passenger vehicles by 2012, would be the best bet of all. It will help teen drivers avoid crashes, kicking in with braking and engine power if the system senses the driver is losing control of the vehicle — a highly likely scenario.
If there's still money in your teen car budget after all of this, it pays to consider some of the more advanced crash-avoidance technologies showing up on new models. Check out, in particular, the emergency brake assist, lane departure and blind spot warnings mentioned in "Top 10 High-Tech Car Safety Technologies."
While it's common to seek out a used car for a teen driver, keep in mind that a vehicle more than three or four years old is pretty unlikely to have the latest safety equipment. Only in the last three years have many non-luxury cars had stability control or side airbags available. But if you're lucky enough to find an affordable slightly older model with the right features, go for it.
When it comes to car shopping for a teen driver, Kellerman sums it up well: "If you can't afford the safest car, buy the safest car you can afford."
Below are links to all of the installments in this series.
Part I: How To Crashproof Your Teenager
Part II: Laying Down the Law for Your Teen Driver
Part III: Finding a Driver's Ed Program That Really Works
Part IV: Choosing the Safest Car for Your Teen
Part V: How To Keep Tabs on Your Teen Driver
Jayne O'Donnell is an auto writer at USA Today and specializes in car safety.