Rules of the Road

Buying a car for your new driver? Here’s how to keep them safest behind the wheel

We want to put our kids in the safest vehicle possible for their first driving years. But it’s not easy to choose which car is the safest.
We want to put our kids in the safest vehicle possible for their first driving years. But it’s not easy to choose which car is the safest. McClatchy

Question: My daughter is about to get her driver’s license, and I want to get a vehicle that will keep her safe. What do you recommend?

Answer: Let’s start by agreeing that new drivers are some of the most dangerous people on the road. If we love our kids (of course we do), we want to put them in the safest vehicle possible for their first driving years. It turns out that it’s not easy to choose which car is the safest.

You could use the fatal crash rate for the car, but that’s actually a bit of a subjective number. That number is influenced not only by the car’s actual safety, but also by the type of person who is likely to buy the car. For example, the Nissan 350Z has a fatal crash rate of about double most sports cars. But it’s not the car’s fault. The 350Z is one of the most popular sports cars with young drivers, and young drivers crash more than other people. In this case, it’s the driver, not the car. For the record, I’m not advocating a powerful sports car as a new driver’s first car.

You could use the rule of lug nuts. This is the premise that the vehicle with the most lug nuts will best protect its occupants. Generally, this is true. An economy car (4 lug nuts per wheel) is at a distinct disadvantage when going head-to-head with a full-size SUV (6 lug nuts per wheel). The physics of the rule of lug nuts begins to fall apart when vehicles are not mismatched. Because of the amount of momentum that large vehicles carry into a crash, drivers are more likely to walk away from a head-on crash between two small cars than two big SUVs.

You could use the ratings from safety reports. But can a safer vehicle simultaneously be more dangerous? Possibly. SUVs, because of their size, get high ratings because they are better at protecting occupants in a crash. However, because of their height (and higher center of gravity), they’re more likely to roll over compared to a sedan. Same goes for pickup trucks. Do you choose a vehicle that’s more likely to protect lives in a crash or more likely to avoid the crash altogether?

Also, SUVs are disproportionately responsible for non-occupant fatalities. Giving your young driver the heaviest vehicle on the road may protect your child, but you’re also asking an inexperienced driver to manage a lot more inertia than a mid-size sedan while driving a vehicle type not exactly praised for its maneuverability.

Buying a car for a new driver should follow a longer set of guidelines than you’d use for an experienced driver with a clean driving history. In addition to the categories above, consider a few more factors:

▪ Safety features: Much of the reduction in traffic fatalities over the last decades has come from safety improvements to cars. Unfortunately it seems we’re not getting much better as drivers. Newer cars try to compensate for our driving errors with better brakes, airbags and stability control. Most of us can’t afford to buy our kids a new car, so I’d recommend getting as much safety as your budget (or your kid’s budget) allows.

▪ Handling: It’s probably obvious, but a car that is easy to maneuver will also be a car that is easier to avoid a crash with.

▪ Horsepower: With young drivers, any horsepower in excess of what it takes to get up to the speed limit is probably a detriment rather than an asset.

▪ Occupant capacity: You could also title this category, “How many teenagers fit in the vehicle?” Crash data shows that increasing the number of teenagers in a car also increases crash risk.

▪ Replacement cost: Your kid could crash your car. Hopefully it won’t be serious. Buy a car you can afford to replace.

▪ Safe driving behaviors: This is the most important consideration of all. As parents, we get to define what good driving looks like for our kids. We model it when we drive, and we can set standards for what we expect our kids to do in the car – things like wearing seatbelts and staying free of speeding tickets. Be clear with your new driver about your driving expectations, and encourage your child to be an excellent driver.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.