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Teen wheels: Is that junker safe?

Safe cars for teens

A safe car is particularly important for teen drivers, whose lack of experience and maturity create a dangerous mix. But many parents can’t or don’t want to shell out for an expensive car that’s liable to get scratched and banged up as their teen learns the hard way.

Thus, the question: can your teen be safe in a junker? The short answer is that it depends on the car and what you mean by “safe.” You’re not going to get the safest possible car without buying something new and expensive, and even that won’t eliminate the risk of an accident, of course. But you can find used cars that rate well when it comes to safety for less than $10,000.

See also: New teen driver? Reduce the financial pain

What constitutes a safe car for teens?

Some safety principles apply no matter who is driving, like how well a car does in crash tests. Others are specific to teens, like avoiding muscle cars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety boils its recommendations on safe cars for teens down to four principles:

  1. Hold down the horsepower, because teens are often tempted to drive dangerously fast. In general, drivers aged 15 to 17 get into accidents 71 percent more often than those aged 35 to 50, according to insurance claim data compiled by the Highway Loss Data Institute. But the increased risk jumps to 115 percent when looking just at sports cars.

  2. Go big when it comes to vehicle size. Not only do heavier cars offer better protection, but teens also are less likely to crash them in the first place, the Highway Loss Data Institute reports. Insurance data shows the increased accident risk for young teens, compared with prime-age drivers, is just 42 percent when driving a large vehicle, compared with 71 percent overall. Mid-sized or smaller cars accounted for 52 percent of deaths among drivers aged 15 to 17, but just 36 percent of deaths among drivers aged 35 to 50 between 2008 and 2012, according to an IIHS study.

  3. Insist on electronic stability control, which automatically applies brakes to individual wheels, helping drivers keep control on curves and slippery roads. The added safety is comparable to seat belts, according to the IIHS. The federal government phased in a requirement for electronic stability control for passenger cars and other light vehicles through the 2012 model year, meaning cars from that model year on have the feature, while earlier ones might not.

  4. Get a vehicle with decent safety ratings. This means at least a “good” rating in the IIHS moderate overlap front test, which simulates two similarly sized cars, each going just under 40 miles per hour, colliding with 40% of their fronts; an “acceptable” rating in the IIHS side crash, in which an SUV-like barrier strikes the driver’s side of a car at 31 miles per hour; and a four- or five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, if rated (the NHTSA doesn’t rate every car). Since 2011, the NHTSA has provided overall ratings. For older cars, the IIHS recommends ratings of four or five stars on frontal and side crash tests.

If you want to be extra safe, you could ensure a vehicle has at least “good” results on all IIHS tests and five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Additionally, you should consider crash-avoidance technologies like rear-view video, collision and lane-departure warning systems, and automatic emergency braking. The NHTSA and IIHS announced on March 17 that 20 automakers, representing more than 99 percent of the U.S. auto market, had agreed to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature by 2022. For now, however, it’s mostly found on newer, pricier cars.

See also: The cost of insuring your teen driver? A premium jump of 80 percent

Finding a safe car for your kid

If you’re shopping for a safe car for your young driver, the IIHS lists dozens of vehicles as “good” or “best” for teens, including cars, SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks.

The “good” vehicles:

  • Start under $10,000;

  • Earned ratings of at least “good” in the IIHS moderate overlap front test, at least “acceptable” in the side test, and at least “marginal” (the level above “poor”) for head restraints and seats;

  • Got four or five stars if rated by the NHTSA, if rated; and

  • Have electronic stability control as a standard feature.

The “best” cars for teens:

  • Start under $20,000;

  • Got “good” ratings on the IIHS moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests;

  • Earned four or five stars from the NHTSA, if rated; and

  • Come with electronic stability control.

If you want to dig deeper into the safety of a particular vehicle, find its listing on the IIHS and NHTSA websites. In addition to providing overall safety ratings, the NHTSA indicates whether a car has certain advanced crash-avoidance technologies and notes safety concerns, such as structural failure, fuel leakage or a door opening during crash tests.

While no car will eliminate the danger of driving, it’s worth paying a little more or handing over the keys to the family’s newer vehicle to provide your teen with an extra measure of protection.

See also: 5 apps and devices to monitor teen drivers

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