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Choosing a Safe Car for Your Teen Driver

Driving Practices, Vehicle Size, Crash Test Scores and Safety Features Matter Most

(updated April 23rd, 2014)

If you're a parent, the notion of buying a car for the teen driver in your family might seem overwhelming. You have concerns, such as safety and cost. And teens — being teens — have their own long list of preferences they hope parents will fulfill. Safety might not be No. 1 on their list.

The most important thing teens can do to foster incident-free driving is to avoid dangerous behaviors such as texting while the car is in motion.

The most important thing teens can do to foster incident-free driving is to avoid dangerous behaviors such as texting while the car is in motion.

But it's likely No. 1 on yours, and with good reason. According to information gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), automobile crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers.

This story focuses on choosing a safe car for your teen driver. We'll look at steps you can take to keep teens safe behind the wheel, addressing both their driving behavior and vehicle choice. Another article looks at reliability and true cost to own as they relate to the vehicle purchase decision. The third story presents specific vehicle recommendations for your teen driver that meet key requirements in the areas of safety, reliability and true cost to own.

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Ford's MyKey allows parents to program a key that limits the vehicle's top speed.

Ford's MyKey allows parents to program a key that limits the vehicle's top speed.

Road Rules for Teens

When it comes to safety, how teens drive is much more important than what they drive. The most significant step you can take to promote incident-free driving is to make sure your teenager is keenly aware of the risks that come with certain driving practices.

Most states have graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws, which are designed to curtail the driving practices that have proven to be riskiest for teens behind the wheel. Studies conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that the accident risk for teens increases after sundown, so these graduated driver licensing laws place restrictions on nighttime driving for teens.

Teens are more likely to be fatigued after dark, and even if they aren't, nighttime driving conditions can tax their unseasoned driving skills. Statistics also show that teens are more likely to have an accident if they are driving other teens (due to factors like increased driver distraction), so GDL laws place restrictions on the number of passengers that teen drivers can ferry in their vehicles.

According to data published by NHTSA, GDL laws substantially decrease teen crashes — anywhere from 20-50 percent. Still, there are some states that don't have these laws in effect. If you live in one of those states, we recommend that you establish house rules for your teens that restrict nighttime driving and limit the number of passengers they carry. And if you do live in a state with GDL laws, make sure that your teen fully observes them.

Safe Car Choices

Once you've educated your teen driver about their role in safe driving, it's time to think about vehicle safety. Vehicle crash test scores are a logical place to start. Both NHTSA and IIHS conduct independent crash tests and you'll want to choose from the most crash-worthy performers.

NHTSA's safest models are those with five-star ratings. At IIHS, the safest models are listed in its yearly Top Safety Picks. "These are the vehicles that perform the best in front, side, rollover and rear crash tests," says IIHS Senior Vice President for Research Anne McCartt.

Another safety aspect to consider is vehicle size. Parents should avoid the largest vehicles, such as trucks, full-size sedans and large SUVs, since these can be unwieldy and difficult to manage, especially for a new driver. Trucks and large SUVs also tend to have higher centers of gravity, which makes them more susceptible to rollovers should a driver lose control.

At the same time, parents should steer clear of the smallest compacts and subcompacts, since these don't fare as well as larger models when it comes to crash protection. Parents should avoid putting teens in the smallest cars on the list, because the laws of physics always apply, McCartt says. "Smaller, lighter vehicles — even those with good crash test ratings — don't provide as much protection as bigger, heavier ones."

Midsize sedans strike the perfect balance of safety and maneuverability for teen drivers. "A midsize car is big enough to protect the occupant in a crash, but small enough to be easy for a novice driver to handle," says Dave Cavano, manager for the Automobile Club of Southern California's car-buying service. "A midsize car also offers plenty of protection in the event of a crash. It also has room for athletic and school gear."

What about SUVs? In a change from years past, IIHS now recommends SUVs for teen drivers, but not older models without electronic stability control. "SUVs provide the bulk that is protective of teens in crashes," McCartt says. "The new models are much less likely to be involved in rollover crashes because of less top-heavy designs, and especially because of electronic stability control."

AAA takes a more cautious approach, advising parents not to buy SUVs for teen drivers. The association cites handling difficulties and rollover concerns. "However, new SUVs are better than older ones because of electronic stability control, so if the roominess of an SUV is a key needed feature, stick with midsized new models," says AAA Automotive Research Manager Steve Mazor.

Not So Fast

Though V6 engines are a popular choice in the midsize sedan segment, they offer a surplus of tempting and potentially dangerous horsepower for teens. An inline-4 engine represents the most prudent choice. A four-cylinder engine has limited acceleration capabilities, and this makes it less likely that your teen will push the vehicle to extralegal speeds. Other advantages include better fuel economy and a smaller carbon footprint. "No car today is really underpowered, so don't hesitate to go with a smaller four-cylinder engine rather than a larger V6," says AAA Auto Repair Manager Michael Calkins.

Although teens will be disappointed to hear it, recommended vehicle categories exclude sports cars, as well as any choices that could be described as being enticingly quick. "Parents should avoid sports cars or those with a sporty image because they encourage risky driving," IIHS's McCartt says.

New-Car Advantages

There are appealing vehicle choices for teens in both the new- and used-car markets.

With a new car, you get a full complement of essential safety features as standard equipment. Federal law now requires that all new vehicles come standard with key safety features like front and side airbags and electronic stability control.

New cars are also more likely to offer advanced crash-avoidance features that might be beneficial to teen drivers. These include forward collision warning with automatic braking, lane departure warning and blind zone detection. To date, there haven't been any independent studies that address whether these features actually help prevent crashes, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they provide some benefit. Keep in mind, though, that these crash-avoidance features don't come cheaply. By adding them, you could wind up increasing the cost of your teen's vehicle by thousands of dollars.

Certain models offer safety features directly aimed at promoting safer teen driving. One such feature is Ford's MyKey, which allows parents to program a key to limit the vehicle's top speed and audio volume. This feature also encourages seatbelt use and provides earlier low-fuel warnings. MyKey debuted as a standard feature in the 2010 Ford Focus and is now offered at no cost on nearly all Ford and Lincoln models.

Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system offers similar benefits. Available on most 2013 and 2014 Hyundai models, this system allows parents to set speed alerts that notify them if their teen's car is driven over a certain speed. This feature will be rolled out across the entire Hyundai fleet over the next couple of years. Blue Link also allows parents to monitor curfews. If their teen's car is driven after 10 p.m. on a particular night, for example, Blue Link can notify parents via text message, e-mail or phone.

Technology That Reduces Distraction

Distraction is a big problem for teen drivers, with texting while driving being one of the most common and dangerous diversions. Both Hyundai's Blue Link and Ford's MyKey telematics systems promote safer teen driving by giving parents the ability to block incoming texts when the teen's vehicle is in motion.

Blue Link and MyKey aren't the only options if you're interested in adding certain teen-oriented safety features. Smartphone apps like LifeBeforeText reduce distracted driving by blocking incoming texts and phone calls. Driver Feedback, an app created by State Farm, uses an iPhone's accelerometer to track speed, braking and cornering, creating maps that parents can use to monitor dangerous driving. And — as part of its free OnBoard Teen Safe Driver program — AAA offers a device that can be used to provide parents with speed and curfew alerts. The device plugs into the vehicle's onboard diagnostic port, and is compatible with most models manufactured after 1996.

Make Smart Choices in a Used Car

A used car is a better deal financially, but you'll have to do a bit more research to make sure it offers most or all of the safety features currently standard on new cars. One feature to prioritize is electronic stability control.

"More recent models are more likely to have electronic stability control, which is a crucial feature, especially for teens," IIHS's McCartt says. "It helps keep them out of the kinds of crashes that stem from mistakes like taking curves too fast."

Parents who are car shopping with teen drivers in mind should also look for choices with airbags, an antilock braking system (ABS), an automatic transmission and daytime running lights. "Automatic transmissions are easier to drive and allow the novice driver to focus on steering, throttle control and braking," says AAA's Cavano. "ABS makes braking easier, especially for a novice driver."

When it comes to choosing a safe car for your teen driver, safety, vehicle size, crash test performance and features are more important than the age of the vehicle. "A 10-year-old luxury car with good crash test ratings and features like electronic stability control — which became standard on luxury cars earlier — could be a good way to fit safety into a limited budget," McCartt says.

Calkins agrees. "Don't worry about age — focus on safety features," he says.

For more on choosing the right car for teen drivers, please read:

The Best Cars for Teen Drivers

Car Shopping for Teen Drivers: Reliability and True Cost to Own