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Teenagers Driving Old Cars: A Deadly Combination

Older vehicles feature fewer safety technologies and lower crashworthiness.

by on Dec.31, 2014

The 2005 Saab 9-3 is one of the safest and least expensive vehicles for teen drivers, according to IIHS.

The fact that teen drivers die at significantly higher rates than other age groups isn’t a surprise to most; however, one of the reasons may be a bit of a revelation: old cars.

It’s often assumed that teenage fatalities involving vehicles – the top reason for teenage fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is car crashes – can be attributable to a dangerous combination of poor driving habits and a lack of experience behind the wheel.

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However, teenagers also typically drive older vehicles that often lack the safety technologies that could offset some of their inexperience. It’s when that decade-old car or truck gets added to the mix that dangerous can become deadly.

Nearly half of drivers between 15 and 17 years old who died in accidents between 2008 and 2012 were driving vehicles that were at least 11 years old and a third of those were driving small cars.

The study, which was written by two Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) researchers, used the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System data from 2008 to 2012 to produce the report.

The fact that teenagers drive older cars, which are often smaller, isn’t a stunner. Parents are generally looking for cars that are very affordable because they believe that teens would dent, ding and otherwise ruin a nice car so they might as well put them behind the wheel of a vehicle where that won’t be as much of an issue.

The researchers cite a survey of parents in May 2014 that found some 60% of teenagers drive cars at least eight years old. In the FARS analysis, 82% of teens killed in wrecks drove cars that were at least six years old.

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Therein lies the conundrum: do you want your son or daughter to ruin a $15,000 car or a $2,000 car. In most cases, parents gravitate toward the latter option. However, older cars tend to have worse crashworthiness and fewer safety features like side airbags and electronic stability control. For example: just 3% of teen drivers’ cars have electronic stability control while side airbags came standard in 12% of teens’ cars.

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Just as importantly, those numbers are unlikely to change much for at least another decade. IIHS said in 2012 that 91% of cars had standard electronic stability systems by the 2010 model year, up from less than 30% in 2005. But just 15% of all registered cars on the road had standard stability systems in 2010.

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IIHS estimates it takes about 30 years from the time a safety feature is introduced until it shows up in 95% of cars and trucks.

ESC and side airbags weren’t introduced until 1995 on the most expensive models and later on more basic transportation. That said, IIHS does have a list of vehicles for less than $6,000 that it rated as “Good Choices” for teenagers.

They include:

  • Hyundai Azera (2006 model year and later)
  • Volkswagen Passat (2006-2008)
  • Saab 9-3 (2005 and later)
  • Suzuki Grand Vitara (2006 and later)
  • Kia Sedona (2006 and later)

Vehicles on this list earn good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front test and good or acceptable ratings in the side test. If rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they earn four or five stars overall or four or five stars in the front and side tests under the old rating scheme. They also have standard ESC and a better-than-poor rating for head restraints and seats.

If these vehicles are out of reach, financially, IIHS recommends large cars over small cars. They protect better in a crash, and analyses of insurance data show that teen drivers are less likely to crash them in the first place, the group said.

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6 Responses to “Teenagers Driving Old Cars: A Deadly Combination”

  1. Jorge says:

    It’s worth noting that no evidence has been provided to suggest that the lack of the additional safety features on the very latest model cars would have reduced teen driver injuries or fatalities. While it’s certainly possible, without accurate data to support this theory, it’s just a theory, not a fact that teens should be driving newer model vehicles vs. 10 year old vehicles. Better driver’s education and driving skills have proven to be quite valuable in reducing accidents.

  2. nobsartist says:

    It’s called ” culling the herd”.
    The feable don’t make it, neither do the crappy drivers.

  3. Mike says:

    Safety sells nowadays, but only to those who can afford to pay for it — life’s no fairer on the highway than it is anywhere else, no matter how old you are.

  4. LAB says:

    That teenagers drive older, high-mileage used cars should not surprise anyone. Not many teenagers are given new cars, let alone have the purchasing power to buy new cars. That has been forever, folks, not a new phenomenon of today. What has to happen is that both mommy and daddy, as well as teenager must be able to (1) afford to MAINTAIN what is purchased; and (2) learn how to drive properly. When teenager doesn’t drive the car properly, mommy and daddy must be courageous enough to take the car away from misbehaving teenager. Car payments and insurance premiums are what hinder proper car maintenance. My father always said that buying a used car meant buying someone else’s problems. I can’t disagree with him. Confessing, my used cars were from him, but he always meticulously maintained his cars. He also was strict about car maintenance while I was living at home, and it is a habit I maintain to this day as an adult on the cusp of retirement. That’s the problem with older used cars in a nutshell. They’re problematic when they’re bought, and lack of overhaul and maintenance contributes to the rest. It doesn’t help that states have parental hours required for temporarily licensed student drivers, either. They get mommy and daddy’s bad driving habits and perpetuate them along with lack of experience.

  5. heyfred3000 says:

    In a few states, as here in Georgia, there is also a teen preference for pick-up trucks, with their exemption from the seat belt law. This contributes to more serious injuries and deaths even at moderate speeds.

    • Jorge says:

      An exemption from using a seatbelt is criminal IMO. The same applies to motorcyclists not wearing a helmet. All of us pay for that ignorance and carnage.