Why teens shouldn't drive old cars? Lack of stability and airbags

Study shows teens killed in crashes lacked stability control, air bags

Last updated: December 19, 2014 10:45 AM
Photo: GM

Most American teens killed in crashes were driving old cars ill-equipped to protect them, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). With  statistics showing that teens are three times more likely to die in a car crash than adults over 20, it is especially important that they drive vehicles with the best crash protection and the most effective safety features.

IIHS dug into statistics from the government’s Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) and compared the types of cars driven by teens who were killed in accidents between 2008 and 2012, with those piloted by middle-aged adults. It found that fatally injured teens were more likely to be driving older cars that lacked the types of effective safety equipment that those the mature drivers had.

For example, 48 percent of the teen drivers killed in car accidents were driving cars that were more than 11 years old. In 2003, electronic stability control (ESC) was mostly limited to luxury cars, and even then, it was usually available only as optional equipment. By the time those cars trickle down to cheap used cars that teens can afford, few are so equipped. Even the six to 10-year-old cars that another 35 percent of teenagers drive are less likely to have these advanced safety systems than newer cars.

Electronic stability control is a safety feature proven to save more lives than any other car innovation since seat belts. ESC works to inhibit a vehicle sliding out of control by applying brakes selectively at each wheel, smartly countering a skid. This effect is especially helpful in tall SUVs and pickups with a higher center of gravity, which are more likely to roll over when they go sideways off of hard pavement. Yet SUVs and pickups were among the last vehicles to get electronic stability control. The first SUV with electronic stability control was the 2003 Volvo XC90, followed by the Ford Explorer in 2005. (Neither car was reliable when it was new, and they only have more problems today.) Electronic stability control was mandated in all new cars in 2012.

No more than about 12 percent of the vehicles teenagers were driving in the study had ESC as standard or optional equipment.

Teens who were killed were also much more likely to be driving smaller cars than middle-aged drivers. Not only were small cars less likely to have such advances features as stability control, IIHS also notes that the overall rate of driver deaths in vehicles that weigh less than 3,000 pounds is 75 percent higher than in vehicles that weigh more than 4,000 pounds. Yet almost 30 percent of teens killed were driving small and mini cars, according to IIHS (versus just 20 percent of adults.)

Side and side-curtain air bags were another nascent safety technology 10 years ago that has become ubiquitous today. In side collisions, side air bags protect front-seat occupants’ torsos, and curtain air bags protect front and rear occupants’ heads. Curtain air bags may also deploy in a rollover accident.

Photo: Honda

Small cars’ especially were seldom equipped with side or curtain air bags in cars before 2003, and they didn’t become widespread until 2009 or 2010. Again, only about 12 percent of the teenagers’ cars in the study were equipped with either side or side-curtain airbags (about the same percentage as adults.)

Along with IIHS, Consumer Reports has long advocated that parents ensure their kids drive larger sedans (or wagons), rather than taller SUVs or pickups, and make sure they are are equipped with electronic stability control as well as front, side, and curtain air bags. Newer cars also have better crash structure that has proven to better protect occupant dummies in a wider variety of severe crash tests.

That means parents shouldn’t jump at the most affordable car for their teen or hand down the family jalopy. Multiple studies have shown that teens are more likely to get into car accidents, so it makes sense to choose a car that gives them the greatest chance of avoiding the crash entirely or reducing the severity of the crash but also the one that offers the highest level of safety when it happens. 

Our lists of Best New Cars for Teens and Best Used Cars for Teens take all these factors into account, along with reliability, since you don’t want your teen breaking down on the side of the road (or a bunch of hassle taking her car back and forth to the dealership).

Eric Evarts

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