Choosing a Safe Car for Your Teen

One of my offspring recently graduated from college, and the other is still in school: I’ve conducted a LOT of research into teen driving safety in the past decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that car accident risk is higher among 16- to 19-year-olds than any other age group. In 2010 alone, nearly 282,000 teens wound up in emergency rooms after wrecks. Some good news: The most important safety feature in a car — the driver — can be improved through education. For example, about half of teens in a 2011 study by the CDC said they rarely wear their seat belts — but that’s something that can be changed. And, the CDC has found that education is one way to increase seat belt use. While reprogramming the organic software (a.k.a. “the young driver’s brain”) is difficult, selecting hardware (a.k.a. “a vehicle”) shouldn’t be. Rather than specific models, focus on how the vehicle is equipped.

ESC, ABS and Airbags

First, aspire to get a vehicle with Electronic Stability Control (generically called ESC, but described under various acronyms by different manufacturers). ESC is a computer system that can provide a magical butt-saving by helping to prevent the car from spinning out or plowing straight off the road. Imagine having a professional race driver take the wheel when things get shaky: That’s ESC. ESC first appeared in the 1980s, and government regulations required that three-quarters of 2007 model-year cars (half of SUVs and pickups) and every 2012 model had ESC. Note: ESC is a wonderful invention, but, of course, safety systems don’t replace the need for safe driving practices. A car will still spin out in deep water if its tires are worn out or if the driver enters a 20 mph hairpin at 60 mph. In addition to ESC, vehicles made in 2012 or later must also have an anti-lock braking system (ABS),  advanced head restraints and the latest crash structures. Many produced before 2012 had those features, as well. You might also want to check whether the car has side air bags, which are not required by the NHTSA. If you can’t afford a vehicle made in 2012 or later, vehicles built no earlier than about 1999 also had several safety features. These include side-impact structure and dual front airbags, both of which were required on cars built in the late ‘90s. While checking to see if the prospective vehicle has the latest safety features, you might also want to make sure it got top marks for crashworthiness from the U.S. government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Buy — and Maintain — a ‘Safety System’

Understand that you are buying a “safety system” for your teen — but it needs to undergo basic maintenance in order to do its job of keeping your teen safe. The vehicle’s tires are one main area to focus on when it comes to maximizing its safety features. To keep the safety system at its peak, I check my teens’ tire pressure at least once a month. (A way to make high-quality tires perform like bargain-basement junk is to underinflate them.) I set the tire pressure to what the vehicle manufacturer recommended. (See the placard on the driver’s door jamb.) I also replaced the tires on my daughter’s car well before they wore to the legal minimum (either 2/32 inch or 1/32 inch in states that have a legal minimum requirement). I bought new tires for my daughter before the most shallow groove of the most-worn tire reached 4/32 of an inch. An easy way to measure: Insert a quarter, Washington’s head down, into the most shallow groove, if you can see the top of George’s wig, replace the tires. Now. I also taught my kids how to fully utilize anti-lock brakes. A topic for another article, I’m sure that knowledge saved my vehicle’s life. And perhaps those of my children. Recommended by the Editors:

Mac Demere
Mac Demere is a veteran automotive journalist and a recovering race car driver. He raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona and NASCAR Southwest Tour series, and co-drove to victory in five 24-hour races. In addition he was a certified test driver for a major tire maker. He currently is an instructor for an advanced teen driving school.