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Status Report, Vol. 39, No. 8 | August 28, 2004 Subscribe

Many beginning drivers aren't driving the most crashworthy vehicles

When it comes to choosing cars for their teenagers to drive, parents face an array of options. Balancing practical considerations such as price and fuel economy with safety considerations can lead to compromises, and teens often end up driving vehicles that are relatively old and small.

"These vehicles typically provide inferior crash protection. Yet they're being driven by the youngest drivers, who are the most crash prone," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research.

The focus of efforts to protect teens has been passage of graduated licensing laws, which are designed to keep young beginners out of high-risk situations while they learn to drive. But crash and injury risks also are influenced by the vehicles teens drive. Little attention has been paid to this.

During interviews with parents in North Carolina and Tennessee, conducted as part of Institute studies on graduated licensing, parents were asked what types of vehicles their teens drive and how the vehicles were selected. More than half of the responding parents said the vehicles already were owned by the family. About 40 percent of parents said they purchased used vehicles, and about 5 percent reported buying new vehicles.

Among parents who bought new or used cars, about half said cost was the most important factor. Safety was mentioned in about 40 percent of the interviews. Fewer than 10 percent of parents mentioned large size as important, even though vehicle size is directly related to fatal crash risk. The death rate per registered vehicle is about twice as high in small cars as in large cars.

"Parents often equate safety with features like airbags. These features are important, but parents also should take size into account," Ferguson says.

Because the vehicles students drive to school are likely to be the ones they typically drive, Institute researchers observed student lots at three high schools in Virginia, Connecticut, and Mississippi. On average more than half of the parked vehicles were ones the Institute doesn't recommend for beginners. Very few students (2 percent) were driving sports cars, but more than 25 percent were driving pickups or SUVs, which aren't recommended because of increased risk of rolling over.

Small cars made up the largest category, totaling roughly a third of the vehicles in the lots. The newest vehicles frequently were small cars or SUVs. Among the 2002-04 models, about half were small cars and about 30 percent were SUVs. This compares with 33 percent (small cars) and 24 percent (SUVs) when all model years were included.

"These results indicate that parents are compromising on safety when they choose vehicles for their children to drive," Ferguson says. "Cost is important, of course, but if parents knew more about what makes vehicles safer they might make better choices for their children."

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