Teens’ Vehicles Elevate Their Relative Risk

This article originated in the September/October 2020 issue of Safe Ride News.

Vehicle Choice a More Serious Risk Factor for Teens Than for Other Drivers

Many of the studies on teen drivers, as well as policies and laws aimed at limiting various teen driving privileges, focus on characteristics of the teens themselves that are known to influence their safety in vehicles.  However, the crashworthiness and crash-avoidance features of a vehicle are also important considerations for occupants of any age, and recent research shows that teens, as a group, tend to be at a disadvantage when it comes to benefiting from today’s safety features.

In the past decade or so, several vehicle safety advances have occurred that make newer cars much safer than older ones.  For instance, electronic stability control (ESC)—a highly effective crash mitigation technology—has been standard on all passenger vehicles and light trucks since model year 2012.  Several other automated driving systems, like lane-keeping assist and automatic braking, are now common, as well.  These features, along with structural improvements that help newer vehicles earn higher crash-performance ratings from NHTSA and IIHS, are among the reasons that newer vehicles are significantly safer than older ones.

However, researchers (Metzger, et al) found that certain populations are much less likely to ride in these safer vehicles, including teens, senior citizens, and, unsurprisingly, those from lower-income neighborhoods. For instance, the study showed that teens (and older drivers) were more likely than middle-aged adults to drive older cars that did not have ESC or side and curtain air bags.

Teen drivers from lower-income neighborhoods were at a particular disadvantage.  On average, young drivers from lower-income neighborhoods drove vehicles that were almost twice as old as the vehicles driven by their peers from higher-income neighborhoods. Young drivers from higher-income neighborhoods were 53% more likely than their peers in lower-income neighborhoods to drive cars with side air bags.

Of course, because a vehicle purchase is a major expense, it’s not reasonable to expect all teens to drive brand new vehicles.  However, it is a mistake to assume safety cannot be considered when purchasing a vehicle on a budget—quite the contrary. In fact, CPSTs should counsel both caregivers and teens to weigh safety as a top priority when determining which car a teen will drive.

CPSTs can learn more on this topic by reading posted articles at A Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia website,, provides a wide array of useful resources for caregivers and teens, as well.

However, when it comes to tracking down an affordable vehicle with the most desirable safety features, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website has, perhaps, the most helpful resource of all.  IIHS, which crash tests vehicles and assigns them ratings, partners with Consumer Reports to consider price, crash performance, and other safety features when compiling an annual listing of vehicles that are the best overall value for teen drivers.  Several models are listed for each body style category (small/midsize/large cars, SUVs, and minivans), and separate lists indicate Best and Good options.

For those who can afford a new car, the site lists recommended models that might still be available through dealerships (2020 is currently posted). However, if a new car isn’t an option, the webpage also lists used cars—some models from as far back as a decade ago.  Options in the Best category include models that can be purchased for under $10,000; models in the Good category range from about $5,000 to $10,000.  Any budget-conscious caregiver or teen should know about these lists to help them find a car that is both affordable and safe.  Find the lists here.


Metzger, et al. “Vehicle Safety Characteristics in Vulnerable Driver Populations.” Traffic Injury Prevention, online August 27, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/15389588.2020.1805445