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Older, smaller cars may pose risk for teen drivers

IIHS is known for its ratings of new vehicles, but for many families a 2014 Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ is not in the budget for a teen's vehicle. In a national phone survey conducted for IIHS of parents of teen drivers, 83 percent of those who bought a vehicle for their teenagers said they bought it used.

With that reality in mind, IIHS has compiled a list of affordable used vehicles that meet important safety criteria for teen drivers. There are two tiers of recommended vehicles with options at various price points, ranging from less than $5,000 to nearly $20,000, so parents can buy the most safety for their money, whatever their budget.

The "good choices" list is meant to provide consumers with a wider array of affordable options. However, compared with the "best choices" list, it is somewhat limited and includes many low-volume vehicles that may be hard to find.

"For the list of good choices, we compromised on the things we thought we could compromise on. Standard Electronic Stability Control (ESC) is not one of those things, and that, frankly, is what is keeping this list so short," IIHS President Adrian Lund says. "That is how important we believe this feature is."

ESC is an offshoot of antilock braking systems that prevents sideways skidding and loss of control that can lead to rollovers and other kinds of crashes. The technology monitors how a vehicle responds to steering input and selectively applies the brakes and modulates engine power to keep the vehicle on the right path. ESC reduces fatal single-vehicle crash risk by about half and fatal multiple-vehicle crash risk by one-fifth.

Parents who do not find a suitable vehicle from the lists of recommended models should seek out a midsize or larger car, an SUV, or a minivan with the most safety they can afford. Besides ESC, specific things to look for in a used vehicle are side airbags and low horsepower. Keep in mind that SUVs and pickups are particularly risky when not equipped with ESC because they are the most prone to rollover crashes.

The recommendations are guided by four main principles:

  • Young drivers should stay away from high horsepower. More powerful engines can tempt them to test the limits.
     
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer. They protect better in a crash, and HLDI analyses of insurance data show that teen drivers are less likely to crash them in the first place. There are no minicars or small cars on the recommended list. Small SUVs are included because their weight is similar to that of a midsize car.
     
  • Electronic stability control (ESC) is a must. This feature, which helps a driver maintain control of the vehicle on curves and slippery roads, reduces risk on a level comparable to safety belts.
     
  • Vehicles should have the best safety ratings possible. At a minimum, that means good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front test, acceptable ratings in the IIHS side crash test and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). IIHS has been conducting frontal tests since 1995 and side tests since 2003, so it is possible to factor these in even for relatively old vehicles. NHTSA's tests have been around even longer.

Parents whose children still are years away from driving should consider planning ahead for that day. If possible, when buying the next family vehicle choose one with the most up-to-date safety features, with an eye to giving it to your teenager to drive when the time comes. Look for an IIHS Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ winner that also earns at least 4 of 5 stars from NHTSA.

Sources: IIHS, HDLI

Written by: Lisa Callaham
Posted: Jan 08, 2015 by Lisa Callaham

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