Somewhere between tricycles and braces, visions of fast cars and good times begin to dance around in the heads of children when they near the teenage years.  As the magical driving age looms close, the almost palpable desperation to be an official Missouri or Kansas driver reaches fever pitch.   The calendar is marked and days are counted off until that day when the there are sixteen candles on the cake and a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles is inevitable.  Many teens view the driver's examination as a rite of passage.  With sixteen years of life behind them, they think they are ready for anything the road has to throw at them.

Cars that make a statement

Of course, the next big question in a teenager's brain centers around what set of wheels they will be seen in driving around town.  For a teenager, the issue of a car to drive has much more to do with than just a sensible mode of transportation.  Cars equal status and style.  According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the type of car your teen drives has a lot to do with the choices they make behind the wheel.  Get a teen a fast sports car, and your teen will likely drive like the owner of a fast sports car.

According to a study conducted by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, teens that have a car of their own are twice as likely to get into a fatal crash than teens who simply borrow their parent's car.  Additionally, parents who retain ownership of the vehicle the teen drives also keep greater control over their driving habits. 

What will they drive?

Your research for your teen's first set of wheels involves the latest safety ratings from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), while your child peruses the latest issue of Hot Rod Magazine for his car shopping.  According to President and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (J. Peter Kissinger), small performance vehicles are the last thing that should be on a teenager's shopping list.  "Don't buy the argument that you need something highly maneuverable and small," he states.  "You simply don't have the skills to do that when you're a teenager."

Mid-size or larger cars should be at the top of the list for teenage drivers.  Jeffrey Runge, emergency room physician and former NHTSA head, recommends that teenagers drive cars that weigh at least 3,300 pounds.  Compacts and sports cars are simply out of the question where matters of teen driving safety are concerned.  Eleven small cars out of 16 make the list for highest driver death rates, according to an April 2010 IIHS report.

Size isn't everything

Beware of the notion that bigger is always better.  Light trucks and sports utility vehicles (SUVs) carry their own sets of problems to the table.  Roll-over accidents have plagued SUVs for years, requiring the addition of a warning label on the visor warning against abrupt moves.  According to Kissinger, SUVs are not the best choice for student drivers.  "As a general rule, I don't think SUVs are a great idea when learning to drive," he warns.  Older models without Electronic Stability Control standard are a roll over hazard.

So, what is the right choice for your teen?  Small sporty cars like the Ford Mustang top the list for fatal traffic accidents.  Speed and sporty cars are a fatal combination.  Cars that reach a speed of 60 miles per hour in 8 to 11 seconds are a good guide, according to AAA Michigan community safety manager Jack Peet.  This will seem counterintuitive to young speed enthusiasts, but the car that gets them safely back home is the best car they can drive.

Check crashworthiness test results before you begin your shopping.  Remember that older model cars often lack the latest safety features like side curtain air bags, antilock braking systems, and the latest stability control technology.  Get the best safety you can for the money.  Dr. Art Kellerman, Chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Emory University sums up the goal for parents shopping for their teenager's vehicle when he suggests "if you can't afford the safest car, buy the safest car you can afford."

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James Roswold
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James Roswold is a Kansas & Missouri personal injury, workers comp, and medical malpractice attorney.