Buying the Right Car for Your Teen Driver
December 1, 2008
Most parents instinctively know that buying a sports car for their teen drivers would probably be a big mistake. A high-horsepower, easily maneuverable car could be a deadly temptation for a teen, especially combined with the teen’s feeling of invincibility and risk-taking behavior. But if your child is pressuring you for a sporty convertible, here’s some ammunition for saying no.
The first years of driving are very risky, no matter what your teen is driving. Teen drivers have the highest death rates in car crashes of any age group. Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death among Americans aged 15-20.
And some cars are simply more deadly than others. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, small sports cars such as the Ford Mustang, the Chevrolet Corvette, and the Pontiac Sunfire have the highest death rates in crashes. “Vehicle choice does matter,” says J. Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Use it as another means to have a conversation with your teen.”
For more support, go online with your teen and check out insurance rates for their vehicle of choice. Explain that adding the teen to your policy will raise your rates no matter what she or he is driving. “Having a young driver added to your insurance will raise the rate 50 to 100 percent,” says Jeanne Salvatore, vice president of consumer affairs for the Insurance Information Institute. But the rates are much higher for vehicles considered high-risk.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, you are still the parent. Getting a driver’s license is an exciting rite of passage for your teen, but this new level of independence doesn’t end your primary job as a parent – to make the safest possible choices for your child.
Many parents, swinging to the other end of the pendulum, think an ancient clunker shaped like a tank would be safest for their teens. But experts demur, for two main reasons. First, the poor acceleration power of an older vehicle both makes it more difficult for teens to accelerate in some driving situations, such as lane changes and highway merges, and tempts them to simply drive faster to make up the difference in accelerating power. Second, older vehicles don’t have the benefit of modern safety features, such as airbags and electronic stability control.
So, with these two vehicle types out of the question, how do you select a safe car for your child?
First, consider size. A mid- or larger-size car could mean the difference between life and death in a crash. Though that’s true for drivers and passengers of all ages, it’s especially true for teens because of the high likelihood of driver error, which often leads to a crash.
Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Jeffrey Runge, a former emergency room physician, recommends vehicles weighing at least 3,300 pounds for teen drivers. This is a good guideline for parents who are unsure of which vehicle class to shop in for their teen’s car.
Here again, some parents go to the extreme and choose an SUV for their teen drivers. But most safety experts think this a mistake. SUVs have a high center of gravity and thus are more likely to roll over than other vehicles. Drivers aged 16 to 20 are more than twice as likely to be involved in a rollover in an SUV than older drivers. Second, SUVs can be challenging to handle in an emergency, making them a better choice for those with more driving experience than teens. And SUVs carry more passengers, which make the vehicle more unstable and can be highly distracting for a teen driver.
A second important consideration in the choice of a car for your teen is crash protection. Although a vehicle with front driver and passenger airbags should be relatively easy to find, consider side airbags that protect the head and chest. You’ll have to do some research, because not all car manufacturers approach this the same way. “The trend is now more curtain airbags for the head and more door-mounted for the chest,” says Mark Krawczyk, consumer information director for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Electronic stability control helps drivers maintain control of their vehicles during extreme steering maneuvers. Since teens are prone to overcorrecting in an emergency, it may be well worth it. The feature “cuts single vehicle crashes by more than half in our studies,” says Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Anti-lock brakes (ABS) also allow a driver to maintain control of the steering during emergency braking situations. Be sure to teach your teen to use anti-lock brakes properly in an emergency – hit the brakes hard and don’t let up. The pulsing vibration you feel means the ABS are working; some drivers instinctively let up on the brake when they feel it, so it’s important to practice not letting up on the brake so your teen will do the right thing in an emergency situation.
If your budget allows, check out the more advanced crash-avoidance technologies found on newer modes, such as emergency brake assist, lane departure warnings, and blind spot warnings.
And don’t forget the basics. All vehicles come with safety belts – make sure your teen wears them on every trip. Don’t forget to check the tires, headlight and taillights on a regular basis to make sure they’re in good working order.
Lastly, when buying a car for your teen, realize that you are entering a new era of driver training. Your teen will be excited and very probably overconfident in her or his abilities. Be sure to train them in the vehicle you choose. Require that your young driver demonstrate responsible behavior and meet experience requirements in diverse road conditions before heading out on the road alone. Check up on them frequently. Sign a teen driving contract to make sure your teen explicitly understands your requirements.