Teens Should Drive Big Safe Cars

Dr. Anne McCartt PhD Senior Vice President, Research Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Arlington, VirginiaMedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr. Anne McCartt PhD
Senior Vice President, Research
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Arlington, Virginia

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. McCartt: Motor vehicle crashes are a significant public health problem in the U.S., and that’s especially true for teenagers. Teen drivers have crash rates three times those of drivers 20 and older per mile driven. Immaturity leads to speeding and other risky habits, and inexperience means teens often don’t recognize or know how to respond to hazards.

The type of vehicle a teenager drives has a  big effect on the degree of risk. Nevertheless, the main finding of our study is that many teenagers are driving – and dying in – the least protective types of vehicles. Nearly 30 percent of drivers ages 15-17 who died in highway crashes during 2008-12 were driving mini or small cars. Eight-two percent of the teenagers were driving vehicles that were at least 6 years old, and nearly half were driving vehicles that were at least 11 years old. Small cars are problem because they don’t afford as much crash protection as bigger, heavier vehicles. Older vehicles are less likely to have the best crash test ratings, and usually lack electronic stability control (ESC) or side airbags as standard features, despite the proven effectiveness of these technologies.

Parents are obviously concerned about safety. In a separate survey we found that safety ranked highest among the reasons for choosing a particular vehicle. Most parents knew that a midsize or larger vehicle was safer than a small one, but their knowledge about which safety features to seek out wasn’t very current. When asked what safety features they insisted on for their teen driver, people most frequently mentioned frontal airbags and safety belts. Only 5 percent of respondents mentioned ESC.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. McCartt: It’s understandable that many parents don’t trust their children with an expensive new vehicle, so they give them an older used car or an inexpensive new car. What they probably don’t fully realize is that they are compromising their teenagers’ safety in the process. A teenager’s first car is more than just a financial decision. Parents need to do their homework and factor in safety as well as affordability.  The Institute has developed a resource to give parents a guide to the safest used vehicles: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/sr/statusreport/article/49/5/1  The list is based on four main principles:

       Young drivers should stay away from high horsepower.

       Bigger, heavier vehicles are safer.

       Electronic stability control is a must. This feature, which helps a driver maintain control of the vehicle on curves an slippery roads, reduces risk on a level comparable to safety belts.

       Vehicles should have the best crash test ratings possible from the Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In the survey of parents, the mean purchase price for a teen’s vehicles was about $9,800, while the median was just $5,300. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get a safe vehicle for the prices most people are paying, but the Institute’s list includes many good options for under $10,000.  Parents whose children are still years away from driving should consider planning ahead for that day. If possible, when buying the next family vehicle, choose one with the most up-to-date safety features, with an eye to giving it to your teenager to drive when the time comes.

Parents need more information about purchasing a safe vehicle for a beginning driver. Resources about teen driving safety should include recommendations about safer vehicle choices as a key component of reducing risk.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. McCartt: It’s well documented that electronic stability control significantly reduces crash risk, but it would be useful to study how  electronic stability control affects teen crash rates specifically. And as other advanced crash prevention technologies become more commonplace, we need to see how they could be beneficial for teens.


Type, size and age of vehicles driven by teenage drivers killed in crashes during 2008-2012
McCartt AT1, Teoh ER1.

Inj Prev. 2014 Dec 18. pii: injuryprev-2014-041401. doi: 10.1136/injuryprev-2014-041401. [Epub ahead of print]


Last Updated on December 23, 2014 by Marie Benz MD FAAD