According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), auto accidents are still the leading cause of death for American teenagers. However, due to safer vehicles graduated license laws, the numbers have decreased 65% from 8,748 teen deaths in 1975 to 3,023 in 2011.
Regardless of statistics and new vehicle safety precautions, automakers still haven’t come up with a vehicle that can drive itself when the weather gets bad, when a tire blows out or when another driver becomes distracted and wanders into your lane. Seasoned drivers rely on their experience and split-second-decision-making abilities to negotiate these perilous moments. Teens don’t have that experience.
Automobile crash experts cite inexperience, low seat belt use, driving with too many passengers in the car, inattention, drugs and alcohol and excessive speeds as the reasons why teens are involved in so many fatal crashes.
Another culprit is the size and type of vehicle they drive. In an emergency situation, because a young driver has little or no driving experience to draw on, he’s forced to rely on the structural integrity of his vehicle to see him through a collision. The kind of car a teen drives could mean the difference between injury and death.
Does that mean you should rush out and buy a brand new car with all the latest safety options?
Not necessarily. However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends newer models. They do better in crash tests than older cars and have extra safety features like air bags, anti-lock brakes and passive restraints.
How a vehicle does in a frontal impact depends on its structural integrity and its crumple and crash zones. Crumple zones absorb energy on impact, and since their collapse is controlled, the energy that would otherwise damage a passenger area gets channeled to different parts of the vehicle.
Bigger vehicles have longer crumple zones, providing more protection to the passenger areas. However, they’re not an ideal fit for everyone. Consider a young petite woman. If she can’t comfortably reach the gas pedals or see over the steering wheel, she’s not going to have good control of her car. Consider, too, the rollover issue with sport utility vehicles. Because they have a high center of gravity, they are more prone to rollover than cars. Experts cite speed and inattention — two culprits behind teen crash fatalities — as the causal factors in rollovers.
NHTSA conducts front and side crash testing on vehicles predicted to have a high sales volume, vehicles that include a new safety feature or have been structurally redesigned. The agency also assigns vehicle rollover resistance ratings. They publish their results on their website. Before you begin to research your automobile’s crash test scores, take a moment to look at the website’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page. You’ll glean insight into the different kinds of tests they perform, under which conditions they perform them, and the factors they use to rate performance. Another source for crash test information is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
If you’re in the market for an older model, experts recommend buying a sturdy and reliable — but not overpowered — sedan. Your teen won’t be able to drive at excessive speeds, but if he loses control of the vehicle, he won’t face the increased rollover risk he would if he was in a high profile vehicle. Make sure the car’s tires and brakes are in excellent shape. Examine seatbelts for loose or fraying fabric and make sure they attach and retract properly. Consider having the car thoroughly checked out by a trusted mechanic.