Teen Drivers and Older Cars Don't Mix

Of all the teenage rites of passage, learning to drive may be the most exciting – and the most terrifying. There’s no denying your baby is all grown up when they are in charge of a heavy, fast machine that’s capable of killing. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers. Car crashes were the reason that over 2,160 teens ages 16 to 19 were killed in 2013 and 243,243 were injured seriously enough to need emergency room treatment. The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than among any other age group. Per mile driven, teen drivers are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.

Recommendations on Best Choices for Teen Vehicles

  • Less horsepower means teens are less likely to race and test their limits.
  • Electronic stability control (ESC) helps maintain control on curves and slippery roads.
  • Bigger, heavier cars offer superior crash protection over minicars and small cars.
  • Best possible safety ratings:
    • Good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front test
    • Acceptable ratings in the IIHS side crash test
    • 4 or 5 stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

There are many dangerous behaviors that teen drivers share with older drivers, including not using their seatbelts, driving while distracted, driving recklessly, and driving while tired. But one detail that is getting overlooked is that many teen driver car accidents occur in older and smaller vehicles.

Researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) examined data on auto fatalities that occurred between 2008 and 2012, focused on 15- to 17-year-old drivers and 35- to 50-year-olds, and used vehicle identification numbers to determine the make, model, and year of cars involved in those crashes. Published in December 2014, the study found that four out of five teens killed were driving cars that were at least six years old and nearly half drove cars that were more than 11 years old. In addition, nearly one-third of the teens killed were driving small or mini cars.

While the data confirmed the suspected conclusion that larger, heavier vehicles performed better in crashes than smaller, lighter ones, the common factor in the fatal crashes studied was that older vehicles did worse. The IIHS recognized that most parents can’t afford to supply their teen driver with a car having the latest safety equipment, so it assembled a guide of affordable used vehicles with important safety features. Some parents who are reluctant or unable to buy a second (or third) car may wish to update the family car to maximize safety.

There are two tiers of recommended vehicles, with options at various price points, ranging from less than $5,000 to nearly $20,000 (Kelley Blue Book value as of July 1, 2014). The tiers are broken into classes for large cars, midsize cars, small SUVs, midsize SUVs, large SUVs, and minivans The cheapest large car with the “best” rating is the Volvo S80 for $9,000, while the cheapest midsize “best” car was the Volkswagen Jetta. In the “good” category, the Hyundai Azera priced at $5,700 was the least expensive large car and the Saab 9-3 at $4,000 was the least expensive midsize car.

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