In what seems like the blink of an eye, children go from being precious cargo to being (literally) in the driver’s seat. There are few parental decisions that have the magnitude of deciding what kind of car your teen will drive, especially given that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 14-18 year olds in the United States.
We asked experts for their thoughts on buying cars for teens and advice on how parents can seize the many teachable moments that come with teen driving.
Consider keeping the keys
While most kids would love to get a car with a big red bow on it for their 16th birthday, that may not be the best way to go. Kathy Bernstein, senior manager of teen driving initiatives at the National Safety Council, says teens should not have their own cars.
“A family might have a car that a teen uses, but the parents need to own the car and hold the keys,” Bernstein says. “Kids will drive at some point. We want them to learn under parent supervision and get the necessary experience while parents still control the keys.”
One unexpected benefit of this set up is that parents are likely more aware of when kids are driving and know to refrain from texting their kids at that time.
“That first year when they’re driving alone is the most risky year of life up until that point,” Bernstein says. “The more parents stay involved with kids, the better off the outcome is going to be.”
Keep it within reason
Some parents worry that having access to a car will lead to a sense of entitlement, but that’s not necessarily a given.
“A kid with a car is not a spoiled kid, not by a long shot. A car can absolutely be a need, not a want,” says Ron Lieber, New York Times columnist and author of “The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money.”
However, experts agree that a parent should not get a teenager a “dream car,” for both safety and financial reasons. Lieber says parents should leave something for kids to aspire to one day when they are earning their own money. Better yet, he says parents can use the opportunity to teach teens that money is better spent on something more memorable than fancy cars.
“A BMW is not necessary,” says Lieber. “If your kid happens to be a kid who has gotten to do and have more than most others in their community, this might be the perfect moment to scale back and remind them of what is necessary and sufficient and what is extravagant.”
Older cars are not the safest options
Conventional wisdom used to be that having teens drive older cars was a safe and economical way to go. Experts agree that is no longer the case.
“The rules are different now, and they’ve changed from even just five years ago,” explains Scotty Reiss, co-founder of She Buys Cars and president of the International Motor Press Association. “Safety technology has changed a lot in the last five years.”
Safety features that used to be markups are now coming standard in cars, including rear view cameras, blind spot monitors and additional airbags. Electronic stability control was required in vehicles starting in 2012.
“It’s a proven safety feature that is life-saving technology and especially important for teenagers because it prevents loss-of-control crashes that often occur when driving around a corner too fast – exactly the kind of crashes that teens are prone to,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
The safety improvements are still taking effect. For example, crash mitigation systems will be standard in cars in 2018. Reiss says to tell your insurance company the safety features your car has because you may be able to get a discount.
Experts agree that the size of the vehicle takes on great importance when a teen is behind the wheel. The IIHS excludes small cars from its list of recommended vehicles because they do not provide good protection in a crash. Reiss agrees that compact cars are too small for inexperienced drivers.
“Having the metal around you is truly a good thing,” Reiss says.
High horsepower should also be avoided. Reiss recommends a four-cylinder engine with 250 horsepower, which is typical in an average mid-size sedan.
Reiss recommends a four-door sedan for teens, noting that SUVs have a higher roll-over rate. A sedan also keeps kids from driving a large number of friends and becoming distracted on the road. While graduated driver’s license laws limit the number of teens in a car, parents are the ones who need to know and enforce those restrictions.
“Each additional teen in a car doubles your teen’s chances of having a crash,” she says.
Practice makes perfect
Kara Macek, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, says parents shouldn’t rely on driver’s ed alone to prepare teens for safe driving.
“Be a good coach and invest the time and effort in teaching your kids,” she says.
Parental instruction should not stop when a child gets a driver’s license. Regardless of whether kids are driving their own car or a family vehicle, practice makes perfect. The Digital Driving Coach on the Drive It Home website offers weekly practice lessons parents can download.
“Heading into fall and winter, we encourage parents to practice driving in inclement weather conditions,” says Bernstein. “There’s no way new drivers have mastered driving in rain, snow and ice.”
The Best Used Cars for Teens
The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety just released its used vehicle recommendations for teens, and there is good news.
“Parents have more choices this year, and more choices that are less expensive,” says McCartt, noting that this year’s list includes 150 cars, up 50 from last year.
The list includes two tiers: “best choices,” priced under $20,000 with good ratings in the Institute’s four oldest crashworthiness tests, and “good choices,” priced under $10,000 with less-than-perfect ratings in some tests. Below are 20 of the “best choices” vehicles. You can find the full list, including model years and Kelly Blue Book prices, here.
- Acura TL
- Audi A3
- Audi A4
- Buick Verano
- Chevrolet Malibu
- Dodge Avenger
- Ford Fusion
- Ford Taurus
- Hyundai Sonata
- Kia Optima
- Lincoln MKZ
- Mazda 6
- Mercury Milan
- Nissan Altima
- Subaru Legacy
- Toyota Prius v
- Volkswagen Jetta sedan
- Volkswagen Passat sedan
- Volvo C30
- Volvo S80
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