Safe Teen Driver Series: Part 5 – Choosing a safe and affordable first car

first-car​Our Safe Teen Driver blog series continues. Now that your teen has completed drivers ed and you've logged those (nerve-wracking) practice hours, it's time to start thinking about the long-awaited "first car." While it's likely your teen will have some ideas and hopes on what vehicle they'll pilot, we're here to offer up a 7-point checklist for choosing a safe and affordable first car.

Auto accidents – not cancer, drug overdoses, or violence – are the leading killer of teens. If your teen has a wreck, what he or she drives can make the difference between a sobering lesson and a serious injury or worse. In fact, choosing the safest car possible may be the single most important thing you can do to protect a newly licensed teen.

Recent car-safety innovations put the odds in your teen’s favor like never before. As counterintuitive as it may seem, you might want to hand over the family’s newest car to the very person most likely to crash it!

Before you browse online or brave the car lot, check out these teen-car tips from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Consumer Reports, and our own claim experts:

  1. Think big. Look for mid- or full-size cars that offer more protection in crashes. Not only do they hold up better in a crash than smaller cars, but their longer wheelbases and stable handling are more forgiving when young drivers make mistakes. Some experts recommend a minimum weight of 3,300 pounds, which eliminates compacts and most small cars. But use that only as a guideline, since it also cuts out good teen choices like the Honda Accord. Also know that “5-star crash ratings” measure how well a car protects occupants in a crash with a similar-size vehicle. Regardless of their star ratings, smaller cars almost always fare worse going bumper-to-bumper with larger cars. The fatal-crash risk among occupants of small cars is twice that for people in large vehicles.
  2. Beware high horsepower and turbochargers. It’s too hard for teens – boys especially – not to test the power of strong motors. Don’t swing too far the other way, though, leaving your teen with an underpowered slug that struggles to merge into freeway traffic. Shoot for a car that goes from zero to 60 mph in eight to 11 seconds.
  3. Sedans trump, well, just about everything. With a low center of gravity, sedans don’t have the rollover potential of an SUV or pickup. Plus, their five-person maximum capacity helps limit the number of guests your young driver can pack into the car.
  4. new-car-lot.jpgBuy the most safety you can afford. Of all the latest safety features available, one non-negotiable (if you can swing the extra cost) is electronic stability control. Mandatory since the 2012 model year, it cuts the single-vehicle fatal crash risk nearly in half by helping drivers maintain control on curves and slippery roads. You’ll also want a vehicle with, at minimum, front and side air bags (some cars also come standard with knee air bags and inflatable seat belts for rear-seat passengers). To see some of the newer crash-prevention technologies, check out the videos on
  5. Try a little (friendly) spying. Auto manufacturers are giving parents tools to monitor and influence their teen’s driving behavior with built-in features for everything from limiting radio volume to tracking the car’s whereabouts. Look for systems by Ford, GM, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz on select models (going back to model year 2009 on Fords).
  6. Do your homework. Both the IIHS and Consumer Reports publish annual rundowns of the safest used cars for teens, with some lists sorted by Kelley Blue Book price (less than $20,000 and less than $10,000). The number of choices is surprising, with cars that appeal to teen tastes while satisfying parents’ need for safety: 2015 IIHS Recommendations; 2015 Consumer Reports Top 10 Under $10,000.
  7. Professional vehicle inspections. Once you think you’ve found the perfect used car, get it checked out by a reliable mechanic – even if you have the car’s maintenance record and CARFAX or AutoCheck vehicle history report. You also can examine a few things yourself to ensure you don’t buy a flood-damaged car.

Finding the right car for your teen is not a decision to take lightly, but it can be a learning experience for both of you – and one of those “growing up” memories you’ll both treasure.

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