Teen Driver Safety: Choosing The Right Car for Your Teen Driver

Your teenager just got their driver's license. Your first thought might be to lock your son or daughter in their room until they're 21 (or 40). But there are steps you as a parent can take to ensure your teenager is as safe as possible on the road.

The biggest step is buying your teen's first car, but be prepared for the drama. As a parent, you might forget just how important that first car is and your teen might forget who's going to pay for the car.

According to CarSmart.com's Teen Driver's Buying Guide, the two of you can find middle ground.

Safety First

A driver's license means freedom and responsibility. Most teen drivers take this responsibility seriously, but their driving inexperience makes them the age group with the highest crash risk of any age group for traffic fatalities. Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death among young Americans ages 15-20. The problem is worst among 16-year-olds, who have an immaturity that often results in risk-taking behind the wheel. 16-year-olds are involved in 78 percent of driver error accidents, 39 percent of speeding accidents, and 52 percent of single vehicle accidents.

As a parent, your job is to ensure your teen driver knows how to drive and has a car that helps them avoid accidents. Newer models offer more safety features, protect more during crashes, stall less often, and experience fewer other component failures that might cause a lack of control for inexperienced drivers.

Other safety features to look for include anti-lock brakes, side airbags, tire pressure monitoring systems, and electronic stability control. Also try to find a good anti-lock braking system. If the best car in your price range does not come with ABS, make sure the disc brakes are large and high quality.

Getting a Feel for Your Teen's Car

Check the suspension and ensure the car can be easily maneuvered, accelerates well, and responsive steering. Even more important is visibility. Alert your teen to blindspots and routinely remind them of their danger. Inexperienced drivers must be able to see all the car's blind spots.

Avoid high-performance sports cars -- the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's statistics show that younger drivers are more likely to be in a speed-related crash while driving these vehicles. The teen driver needs some power for safe passing and merging-- but not a sports car. Sports cars are built for speed and teens aren't. Put your teen driver in a car with an automatic transmission. Teens expanding brands will find any number of distractions-- eating, music-listening, trying to find directions, etc. Removing the need to shift will save your teen one more hindrance.

Also avoid small cars and SUVs. Small cars don't always provide its occupants protection like the larger cars do, especially in collisions with other larger vehicles. SUVs have a higher center of mass. Inexperienced drivers abrupt maneuvering these weak-kneed elephants could lead to a rollover accident.

Adaptable, Practical Cars are Safe Cars

First cars under $20,000 to consider include the Volkswagen Jetta, Honda Accord, Honda CR-V, PT Cruiser, Hyundai Sante Fe, Pontiac Vibe and the Volkswagen Beetle. First cars under $15,000 to consider include the Kia Sportage, Toyota Matrix, Ford Focus and the Honda Civic.

There's a good chance your teen will have their first car for five or six years, maybe longer. Look for a car that will adapt with them and their changing lifestyle. Convertibles are fun in the summer, but don't have much cargo space and that'll be important when they're moving their stuff into a dorm room. Thirsty SUVs bust tight student budgets.

Promise to Compromise

It's unlikely you and your teen are going to agree on a first car, so compromise might be in order. Here are a few suggested compromises -- if you, the parent, get these, your teen driver might just get the car they want:

  • The teen driver must attend a safety driving school, then take refresher courses.
  • Just one speeding ticket and it's over.
  • Just one speeding ticket in a school zone and it's really over.
  • "Red Asphalt" will be mandatory viewing before every date.
  • Limit your teen's distractions, such as no aftermarket stereo system.
  • Your teen must change the oil and flush the radiator at least once, plus they must keep scheduled maintenance up to date.
  • Your teen pays the insurance premium.
  • Your teen will not drive with friends at night until he or she is at least 18.

When buying a car for your teen, the car's safety is important, but it's equally important to make sure the person behind the wheel is a safe and responsible driver.

Chris Davis
Top-rated, award-winning, attorney practicing wrongful death & serious injury law in Seattle.