Buying a Car

How to Pick Out a Car for Your Teen Driver

Ryan Hanley | December 17, 2013
Get the right car for your teen driver.

The only thing more stressful than giving your teen-aged child the keys to your car for the first time is giving them the keys to their own car. Teenagers lead busy lives. Whether your child needs to be able to drive directly from school to a part-time job or needs transportation to sports practice sessions and other activities, sometimes it is necessary that they have a car of their own.

So how do you, as a parent, make the best decision about which car to buy? The following are some frequently asked questions posed by people in your situation.

Should I buy a new or a used car?

Many parents grapple with this question before purchasing cars for their children. On the one hand, insurance rates will be higher for new cars, but on the other, these cars may have fewer maintenance and reliability issues.

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. What it boils down to is your own personal preference, how much you are prepared to spend on a vehicle and the likelihood that your child will treat this large purchase as the investment that it is.

What should I look for if I’m buying a used car for my teen?

Many parents do not want to spend a lot of money on their child’s first car. Insurance rates for teen drivers will already be very high, and putting them behind the wheel of a new car will only exacerbate these costs. This is why the majority of parents elect to purchase used cars for their kids.

When shopping for a used car, it may be best to purchase it from a lot where the vehicle will be dealer-certified and will come with a limited warranty. When you purchase a used vehicle from a private seller, you may be unaware of the car’s history as well as whether it has safety or reliability issues. If you find a private seller that is offering a deal that you feel is too good to pass by, insist on being permitted to have it looked at by a mechanic before you make the purchase.

What should I look for when purchasing a new car for my teen?

If money is no object, or if you just feel more secure knowing that your child is behind the wheel of a new car, keep in mind that some studies have shown that brightly colored cars are the easiest to see on the road. The AAA Foundation reports that studies have shown:

  • White cars are the most visible at night
  • Lime-yellow cars stand out best against a cloudy backdrop or snowy conditions
  • White and yellow cars are the least likely to be hit by other drivers
  • Silver cars are the least likely to be involved in crashes involving injuries
  • Red cars are the least visible peripherally and appear black at night

Also, you may not want to skimp on optional safety features. Adaptive headlights and rear-view cameras may seem like luxury additions, but for an inexperienced teen driver, they may prove vital.

While adding optional safety features may increase your purchase price, you may be able to recoup a portion of these costs in the form of reductions on your insurance premiums.

What is the safest type of car to buy?

Above all else, the safety of your child is extremely important. Safe driving habits, including seatbelt use and avoidance of cell phones while driving, are important; it's also important to be behind the wheel of a safe vehicle. Regardless of the type of vehicle you give your child, keeping it well-maintained is crucial.

While subcompact cars are efficient and inexpensive, they may not be he best choice for teen drivers. These vehicles have very small crumple zones and are therefore the least safe in a collision. Some parents feel that sport utility vehicles are ideal for their teens as many have all-wheel drive and these larger vehicles fare well in collisions. However, SUVs have a high center of gravity which makes them prone to roll-overs and many do not hold up well in accidents that test their roof strength.

Sports cars look great but many are very powerful. With a teen-driver behind the wheel, insurance rates will be very high as accidents are more likely. Your child may also be tempted by a convertible, but these cars have weak roofs that may lead to excessive injuries in the event of a collision.

Your child may not want to hear it, but a simple sedan is typically the best option. A recent study done by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that in traffic accidents involving male drivers under the age of 25, the vehicles in which the driver was least likely to suffer fatal injuries were:

  • Large sedan: 5%
  • Minivan: 7%
  • Mid-sized sedan: 14%
  • SUV: 14%

The vehicles in which the driver was most likely to suffer a fatality were:

  • Sports car: 36%
  • Import luxury car: 26%
  • Pick-up truck: 24%
  • Subcompact car: 22%
  • Compact car: 21%

Before purchasing any vehicle, be sure to check out its safety ratings by consulting the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA). These groups put vehicles through rigorous safety testing and publish their results on their websites.

How do I know if the car I am purchasing is reliable?

You do not want your child to be stranded somewhere because a vehicle will not start or because it breaks down on the side of the road. Keeping your car well-maintained and getting it inspected annually will go a long way toward ensuring its reliability. Some cars, however, are known to have problems.

If you are purchasing a used car, you will be able to easily look up the model’s reliability ratings. Less-reliable cars will be priced lower, but when it comes to your child, this is probably not an area where you will want to be trying to save money. If you are purchasing a new car, you will need to base its potential reliability on the maker’s track record.

Be sure that your child knows what to do in the event of a break down. Also, if your insurance provider offers roadside assistance as a coverage option, you may want to seriously consider purchasing it so that your child will have a number to call in an emergency.

Is my insurance going to skyrocket?

It is an unfortunate fact that teen drivers are among the most likely to be involved in motor vehicle collisions. In fact, the CDC reports that 16 to 19 year old drivers are the group most frequently injured in car accidents. This is due in part to driver-inexperience and in part to distractions and careless behavior. When you add a teen driver to your insurance, you can expect your rates to rise significantly.

If your child has the opportunity to enroll in a defensive driving course, encourage doing so. Not only will these courses provide your teen with the tools and knowledge needed to be a safe and defensive driver, course completion can also lead to discounts on your insurance rates. Additionally, some insurance providers will offer discounts to teens who get good grades in school or who go away to college but leave their cars at home during the school year. Be sure to speak with a representative at your insurance company to learn how you can keep your costs at a reasonable level.

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