Choosing a safe family vehicle is easier than ever. Traffic deaths are at their lowest level in decades. Also, many new vehicles are available with safety features like forward collision and lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and collision prevention systems that can automatically bring the vehicle to a stop if they sense an impending accident. Still, if you have a pre-teen who will be old enough to drive in a few years or a teen who drives now, how do you choose a vehicle that is safe for both your family and your inexperienced, young driver?
Most teens will beg for a car of their own, but the safest route may be having your teen share the family vehicle.
"Teens that have their own vehicle drive their vehicle more and are more likely to be in a crash, just because of that," says Anne McCartt, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Whether you plan on letting your teen borrow the family vehicle or help them get their own car when they get their license, here’s what you should be looking for in a car that a teen will be driving.
What makes a vehicle safe for teen drivers?
The safest cars for teens are ones that score high across the board in crash tests and have electronic stability control (ESC), McCartt says. ESC is standard on all new vehicles and is a feature you want to look for if you're shopping for a used vehicle for your teen driver. When there is a loss of steering control, ESC automatically kicks in and applies the brakes to individual wheels to correct the steering and help guide the vehicle back to the driver's intended course. McCartt adds that parents should also look for vehicles that have side air bags that protect the head.
"The government (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) does complementary crash tests, and so we would really urge people to look at the government tests and look at our tests and make sure whatever vehicle they buy is one that is rated well for crashworthiness," she explains.
In addition to researching vehicle safety scores from both the IIHS and NHTSA, parents should consider the class of the vehicle.
Safest Cars for Teens: Midsize and Large Cars
McCartt suggests large and midsize cars for teen drivers, since they offer better crash protection than a compact or small car. According to a January 2015 IIHS status report, among four-door cars, drivers of very large cars are the least likely to die in a crash, while small and mini four-door cars had much higher driver death rates. Midsize and large cars also had lower driver death rates among four-door cars than small and mini cars.
"We [the IIHS] sometimes say big and boring," she says. "And by big we mean midsize or bigger. When we've done surveys, parents often go toward the smaller vehicles, and that might be partly expense. It might also be partly fuel economy. But we say that across the board, all things being equal, a bigger vehicle will provide better crash protection than a smaller vehicle. It's especially important for teens, given they're more likely than older drivers to be in a crash."
In the mainstream midsize new car segment, parents have several options, all of which are IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award recipients and have the highest five-star overall safety rating from NHTSA. These include the 2015 Chrysler 200, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry. There are also many new midsize cars that are IIHS Top Safety Picks and have the highest overall rating from NHTSA, like the 2015 Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Nissan Altima and Volkswagen Passat.
While a faster, sportier vehicle may not be on your list for your next family vehicle, your teen may still want to drive one, which McCartt says should be avoided if possible because teens will be more inclined to engage in unsafe driving.
"A big factor in teen crashes is speeding," she says. "It's kind of asking for trouble. You don't want to encourage speeding or other aggressive driving behaviors."
Safest Cars for Teens: SUVs
If a large, dull sedan isn't your teen's ideal first car, McCartt suggests shopping for an SUV. "With ESC dramatically reducing rollover risk, the inherent advantages offered by SUVs' greater size, weight and height emerge more clearly," the IIHS says in its January 2015 status report. "Today's SUVs have the lowest driver death rate of any vehicle type."
Among two-wheel drive SUVs, midsize and large SUVs had lower driver death rates than small and very large SUVs. Overall, drivers of cars, minivans and trucks had higher driver death rates compared to SUVs.
New SUVs that are safe for your family and teen driver include the midsize 2015 Toyota Highlander, as well as the compact 2015 Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander (AWD only) and Subaru Forester. These SUVs are both IIHS Top Safety Pick+ recipients and have NHTSA's highest five-star overall rating. If you prefer to buy a used model, the IIHS also has a list of recommended used vehicles that are not only affordable, but safe for your teen driver.
Safety Features for Parents and Teens
A lot of the safety features that are good for teen drivers can also help parents. Features like enhanced belt reminder systems make a noise if the driver and front passenger are not wearing their seat belt.
"Those are those systems that 'ding, ding, ding' and can be really annoying when you don't buckle up," McCartt says. "And we did a study of a monitoring device in teens' vehicles that showed that the 'ding, ding, ding', that didn't stop until you buckled up, improved belt use. … We all think our teens buckle up, but when you look at fatal crashes, a lot of them don't."
Ford offers its MyKey system as a standard feature on many new Ford and Lincoln vehicles. It lets parents program a key specifically for their teen driver, where they can limit the vehicle's top speed and stereo volume. MyKey also has a persistent seat belt reminder system that mutes the stereo until seat belts are fastened.
Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system has features like geo-fence, curfew alert and speed alert. Speed and curfew alert let parents set a max speed limit and curfew for their teen drivers and if they go over that speed or are out driving past the curfew, parents are alerted with an email or text. Geo-fence alerts you if the vehicle has traveled outside your pre-determined mileage zone.
High-tech safety features, like forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, a rearview camera, forward collision prevention/automatic braking, lane keep assist (which automatically takes over the steering to gently pull the vehicle back into the lane), driver drowsiness monitoring and night vision with pedestrian detection are features for parents to consider when shopping for a family vehicle they plan on letting their teen drive. NHTSA recommends the following safety features when shopping for a new vehicle: a rearview camera, lane departure warning and forward collision warning.
Overall, McCartt says to put your teen in the safest possible vehicle, because you can't control what happens once your teen is behind the wheel.