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Teens in fatal crashes are too often driving unsafe cars

Although parents state that safety is the top priority they use when choosing a car for their teenage son or daughter, many of those same parents buy their children older, less safe cars.

Teenagers killed on U.S. roads in recent years were about twice as likely to be driving a vehicle six to 15 years old than adults their parents’ age, according to a new study.

They were also significantly more likely than middle-aged adults to be driving small cars and vehicles without important safety features.

These troubling findings suggest that parents need to become better educated about vehicle safety — and to make wiser choices when purchasing cars or trucks that will be driven by their children.

The report was written by researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and published Thursday in the journal Injury Prevention.

Parents don’t do what they say

As background information in the study points out, fatal vehicle crashes involving teens have dropped dramatically since 1996, thanks in large part to graduated driver licensing laws.

Yet, per mile driven, the rate of serious vehicle crashes, including fatal ones, involving teens remains tragically high — about three times higher than that for adults.

Obviously, we need to be looking for additional ways of keeping our teenage drivers safe.

One of those ways is to make sure that teens are driving safe vehicles. Research has shown, for example, that larger, heavier vehicles provide, in general, better crash protection than smaller, lighter ones. So do newer vehicles, which are more likely to have important safety features.

But, as surveys have shown, although parents state that safety is the top priority they use when choosing a car for their teenage son or daughter, many of those same parents buy their children older, less safe cars.

Five years of data

For the current study, IIHS researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System for the years 2008-2012. This database includes all vehicle crashes on U.S. roads in which at least one person died within 30 days of the accident. The researchers looked at the types, sizes and ages of the vehicles involved in these deadly crashes for two groups: teens (ages 15-17) and middle-aged adults (ages 30-50). They chose that adult age range because it includes most parents of teenagers.

The analysis revealed that two-thirds of the teenagers killed in crashes during those years were driving a car. Of those, 29 percent were driving a mini or small car and 35 percent were driving a mid-size or larger car. The rest were driving pickups (17 percent), sports utility vehicles (SUVs) of various sizes (17 percent) or mini-vans (2 percent).

Teen drivers were significantly more likely than middle-aged drivers to be driving a mini or small car at the time of their fatal crash (29 percent vs. 20 percent) or a mid-sized car (23 percent vs. 16 percent), and significantly less likely to be driving a large pickup truck (10 percent vs. 16 percent).

The analysis also found that 83 percent of the vehicles driven by the teens who died in the fatal crashes were 6 years or older, including 34 percent that were 11 to 15 years old and 17 percent that were 16 years or older.

In addition, only about 12 percent of the vehicles driven by the teens in the study had Electronic Stability Control (ESC) as either a standard or optional feature. That compared to 15 percent of the vehicles driven by the adults in the study — a small but significant difference, say the researchers.  ESC is a safety feature that helps prevent drivers from losing control of their car during a sudden swerve or on slippery roads — and losing control of a car is a situation that is more common among inexperienced drivers. Research has shown that ESC reduces the risk of death by about half in single-vehicle crashes and about 20 percent in multi-vehicle ones.

The current study also found that the teens in the study were slightly less likely than the adults to have had side airbags as a standard feature in their vehicles (14 percent versus 12 percent).

Parents should shop for the newest car they can afford for their teenager, the IIHS researchers conclude. Newer vehicles are generally more likely to have better crash-test ratings, they point out, as well as important safety features, such as ESC and side airbags.

You’ll find an abstract of the study at Injury Prevention’s website. 

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 12/19/2014 - 11:38 am.

    Two things

    Tires. People generally don’t maintain their tires, and it baffles me why. All wheel drive may seem like a good idea, but if the tires are crappy, that system will be less effective than a 2 wheel drive with good tires (most notably in snow). Get the newest car you can afford, but don’t skimp on tires – its what connects the car to the ground (well that and gravity).

    Bring you kid to an empty lot and experiment with braking in particular. ABS is great, but if you are afraid of the pulsing, or try to pump the brakes, you are negating the good. Understand the car can be turned while the brakes are pushed to the floor – its how the system is designed to work.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/19/2014 - 11:51 am.

    Student driving

    Actually, given the growing chasm between the wealthy and the rest of us, the very notion that an adolescent actually *needs* a car might be called into question, though I certainly understand the social pressures at work, whether it’s keeping up with the Joneses next door (adult) or wanting to be at least minimally cool at school (kids). Plenty of parents who buy a car for their offspring purchase an older vehicle because that’s what they can afford. Electronic Stability Control is not a panacea, nor is it a magical cure for not having any idea how to control a vehicle on a slippery road.

    I know this is heresy and sacrilege, but perhaps, if fatal accidents among adolescents are a genuine concern, instead of granting “provisional” licenses at earlier and earlier ages, we ought to be *delaying* the granting of a license until 17 or 18. Even better would be providing actual training, under supervised and controlled conditions, of how to regain control of a vehicle on a slippery road when it starts to skid, or what to do when someone runs you off the road, or you’ve dozed off and suddenly realize you’re driving on the shoulder. There are numerous rather expensive race-driving schools that will teach this sort of thing, but most of what passes for “driver’s education” is pretty pitiful, and it’s a rare program, indeed, that provides any sort of instruction on how to deal with emergency situations.

    Such programs would also be a good place to pound home the lesson that texting while driving kills people, since commercial interests (i.e., cell phone companies) will make sure no legislation passes that prohibits the use of a cell phone by the driver of a moving vehicle. Profits come before people in this society, more often than not.

  3. Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/19/2014 - 02:36 pm.


    I guess I’ll get right on that, after the now twelve year old car so drive finally expires, thankfully I have a good twelve more years until my kids hit the road. The chortles this would illicit from my parents would be priceless however, what world do these folks live in where parents are buying their teenagers cars? Certainly not the one I grew up in. Problems for a different social strata than I inhabit I suppose.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 12/19/2014 - 03:56 pm.

      Couldn’t agree more, Matt.

      The thought of my my folks buying me any vehicle, much less one that was less than five years old, provided me with quite a belly laugh. My dad did spring for a 39.95 paint job from Earl Scheib to spruce up my 1963 Chevy Bel Aire, however.
      No doubt, times have changed and I have daughter that will be driving in a couple of years. I’ve already purchased my mom’s 03 Buick Regal with only 40,000 miles on it for her, as she doesn’t drive much anymore. My son will be close behind and we’ll probably just pass my trusty CRV to him as I move on to something else. But I can’t imagine that there are many families out there springing for next to new vehicles for their kids, especially considering the tiered registration costs and insurance that goes along with it.
      As stated above, the best way to keep kids safe is to maintain the vehicle, put good tires on it, teach your kids to pay attention and to stay off the damn phone.

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