Safety experts make the case for getting teens newer, larger cars

Study: Teens killed behind the wheel were 46% more likely than adults to be driving mini or small cars

Attention Santa Claus: If there are some teenagers on your list who have been very good this year and will be getting cars for Christmas, please make sure those cars are relatively new and relatively large.

A new analysis of fatal car crashes finds that teen drivers involved in such collisions were 46% more likely than their middle-aged counterparts to be in cars classified as “mini” or “small.” Teens killed behind the wheel were also 44% more likely to be driving “midsize” cars.

Size mattered, but so did the age of the vehicles involved in crashes. Compared to middle-aged victims, teens involved in fatal crashes were almost 10% more likely to be driving cars that were 6 to 10 years old, and they were 17% more likely to be driving cars that were 11 to 15 years old. However, the teens were 15% less likely to be in cars that were even older than that.

The data, published this week in the journal Injury Prevention, were drawn from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. FARS keeps records of all motor vehicle crashes that occur on public roads in the United States and result in at least one death within 30 days of the accident.

Researchers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va., focused on crashes in the years 2008 through 2012. They zeroed in on two sets of collisions -- those involving drivers between the ages of 15 and 17, and those involving drivers old enough to be their parents (ages 35 to 50).

They found that 28.5% of the teens were driving mini or small cars, compared with only 19.5% of the middle-aged drivers. In addition, 23.4% of teens were driving midsize cars, compared with only 16.3% of the older drivers. The adults were more likely than the teens to be driving pickup trucks, minivans or SUVs.

These disparities are significant, the researchers wrote, because “all other things being equal, occupants in bigger, heavier vehicles are better protected than those in smaller, lighter vehicles.” The size and weight of vehicles influence the forces experienced by drivers and passengers during crashes, and “the magnitude of these forces is directly related to the risk of injury.”

For instance, a previous report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that for cars weighing no more than 3,000 pounds, the driver death rate was 70 per 1 million registered vehicles, versus 40 per 1 million for cars that weighed in at 4,001 to 4,500 pounds.

The researchers also were concerned about the discrepancy in vehicle age. Overall, 82% of the teens involved in fatal crashes were driving a vehicle that was at least 6 years old; for the middle-age victims, that figure was 77.5%.

A gap was seen in all vehicle types -- cars, pickups, SUVs and minivans -- but it was most pronounced for cars. The researchers found that 51.5% of the cars involved in fatal teen crashes were at least 6 years old, compared with 35.2% for fatal crashes involving middle-age drivers.

That matters because newer cars are more likely to have safety features that can either prevent crashes or reduce the damage they cause. Electronic stability control, for example, “can prevent loss-of-control crashes, which are prevalent among newly licensed teenage drivers,” the researchers noted. Driving a car equipped with electronic stability control cuts the risk of a fatal single-vehicle crash roughly in half, and it reduces the risk of a fatal multiple-vehicle crash by about 20%, according to prior research.

“It is especially important that teenagers drive vehicles that have key safety features and provide good protection in the event of a crash,” the researchers wrote.

But sorry Santa -- they didn’t recommend any specific models that would be best bets for teen drivers. 

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