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5-Point Checklist: Buying the Safest Car for Your Teen

Posted on in Auto Safety

Teen drivers are such a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they can finally drive themselves to school or sports practice, saving you valuable time. On the other hand, they statistically are more likely to be involved in a crash, an event high on the list of parent nightmares.

Fortunately, technology is making today's cars safer. Pre-collision braking, blind-spot assist, and lane departure warning systems are just a few of the available new features. But they are pricey – and most parents aren't going to spring for a new car for a teen who just got a license, if for no other reason than the insurance would be astronomical.

When you're ready to buy your young driver a car, there are some good used models that meet recommended safety criteria, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Overall, these cars are:

  • Bigger and heavier. They offer better protection in a crash, and analysis of crash data shows teens – for whatever reason – are less likely to crash these cars anyway.
  • Not trucks or big SUVs, because they are more difficult to handle and, frankly, invite the possibility of other teen passengers, who would be distracting. Small SUVs are okay.
  • Equipped with electronic stability control (ESC). This feature is a must for any young driver, says the IIHS. ESC helps a driver maintain control of the car on sharp curves or slippery roads and helps reduce the risk of crash injury on par with wearing a seat belt.
  • Have the highest safety rating possible. This is defined by IIHS as moderate or high ratings in front, side and head restraint tests and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
  • Are NOT muscle cars or sports cars with a lot of power and allure for speed.

Up to Date Lists of Recommended Vehicles for Young Drivers

The latest update of the Institute's list of recommended used vehicles for teens includes 49 “best choices,” starting under $20,000, and 82 “good choices,” starting under $10,000.

Starting at about $4,500 for a 2010 Ford Focus, Consumer Reports (CR) also has a recommended list of first cars for teens. Like IIHS, Consumer Reports says electronic stability control is a must. This is readily available on cars built after 2010, but be sure to check individual vehicles because it may have been offered only as an option in the early years, CR notes.

Reliability is another key requirement for cars for young drivers. Consumer Reports is a good resource for used car reliability ratings and safety data. The list referenced above includes reliability data along with safety scores and pricing information.

Statistics on Teen Driver Deaths

Even the safest cars can't protect against crash deaths or injuries, as these sobering statistics show:

  • Six teens or teen passengers ages 16 to 19 die each day from motor vehicle crash injuries; in 2016 this totaled 2,082 sons and daughters
  • 67% of them were not wearing their seat belts
  • 29% of them were speeding
  • 20% had been drinking or had drugs in their systems

Buying the safest car you can afford for your teen is worth every penny. But talking to your teen about the consequences of unsafe driving and modeling responsible behavior yourself is invaluable.

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