Don't Buy Your Kid a Clunker

Buying a cheap car for your kid can have dangerous repercussions.
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(Photo: bertknot/Flickr)

(Photo: bertknot/Flickr)

It’s practically American mythology now, that old adage about kids driving crappy cars. Teenagers, automobile-gifting parents reason, are just going to bump, dent, and scrape that first one anyway. So why bother splurging extra money on a newer Toyota for someone who, statistically speaking, will probably be a pretty terrible driver?

That line of thinking can be quite dangerous, it turns out. According to a study published online last month, almost half of American teen drivers killed on the road in the past few years were driving cars at least 11 years old. Even worse, those cars often lacked crucial modern safety features, like electronic stability control or side airbags.

Almost half of American teen drivers killed on the road in the past few years were driving cars at least 11 years old. Even worse, those care were often lacking crucial modern safety features, like electronic stability control or side airbags.

Dr. Anne McCartt and Eric Teoh co-authored the study for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Virginia. Analyzing data of 2,420 fatal crashes among teenage drivers from 2008 through 2012, McCartt and Teoh found that about half of the teens’ cars were more than six years old. In fact, roughly 17 percent of the cars were 16-plus years old. Twenty-eight percent of those teens killed were also driving a smaller vehicle—known to provide worse crash protection than larger, heavier vehicles.

“While teen drivers have the highest fatal crash rate, they are often driving vehicles that are least likely to protect them,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Parents are obviously concerned about safety when it comes to a teen driver. But we found that they often don’t have the most up-to-date information on what makes a safe vehicle.”

That’s not to say that teens wouldn’t be the most accident-prone drivers if they were all suddenly sporting 2014 models. According to information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they still speed, don’t wear seat belts, and drive drunk more frequently than their older driving peers. But those facts only highlight the need to outfit kids with the safest cars possible. Rader advises against buying any high-horsepower car for your speed-happy youngster. Also, he stresses, be sure that the vehicle has Electronic Stability Control, which helps drivers stay in control on slippery roads or in emergency maneuvers.

“Only five percent of parents [surveyed] mentioned [Electronic Stability Control] as an important safety feature,” Rader adds. “That’s a must.”

So what is a good car then? Luckily, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has also published their own used car suggestion guide, with more affordable, newer cars like a 2007 Volvo S80 and a 2009 Volkswagen Jetta earning high marks.

The “clunker” car has become a staple for American youth. But it could be a good idea to spend a little extra; you might sleep a lot easier.

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