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With teen in driver’s seat, the best kind of car is a safe one

Special to The Times

Sliding behind the wheel of a first vehicle has long been an exciting rite of passage for teens, especially in California, where car worship is part of the culture. Last year, 600,000 or 3.5% of all new vehicles sold nationwide were purchased for teen drivers, according to Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Branden, Ore.

Of the 42.7 million used vehicles sold last year, 7.1% were bought for teens. Indeed, with both parents working and kids’ busy schedules, many families find it increasingly necessary to provide their teens with their own vehicles.

For parents, buying the right vehicle for their young driver requires lots of research and stamina. They have to be ready to stand their ground when it comes to who makes the decisions, according to auto-safety experts.

While your high school or college student may crave a fast Corvette or lifted pickup truck with tinted windows, parents need to set the rules on safety, dependability and cost. Their teen’s vehicle choice may not be what’s best for a young driver.

How do you know if your teen is ready to have his or her own vehicle?

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“They should be responsible, have good common sense and be open with their parents,” says Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California.

How well they do in school can often be a good indicator of how seriously they will take the responsibility of having their own vehicle, she says. Some parents even offer vehicles as rewards for good grades or tie good behavior to the amount of time teens are allowed to drive.

Having your teen help pay for gas or insurance can provide a good reality check on how expensive it is to own and maintain a vehicle, as well as increase their level of responsibility, says Miller.

When Tory Rozzi, 17, of Redlands wanted a car last year, her mother required her to maintain a high GPA at school. Tory successfully met the requirement. Her first choice was a fast, sporty Audi TT. But her mother, Sonia, nixed the idea of a sports car for safety reasons: “I felt nervous about her driving on her own.”

They ultimately compromised and Tory ended up with a 2005 Honda Civic, equipped with front and side air bags, a sunroof and a spoiler.

“That’s as sporty as she’ll get,” Sonia says.

And when Tory was involved in a minor fender bender this summer, she did chores to work off some of the $1,200 it cost for repairs.

Elaine Beno of the Automobile Club of Southern California suggests that parents obtain information on insurance costs before purchasing a vehicle. When you add your teen driver on your insurance policies, insurance rates can increase 50% or more.

Also, don’t let flashy automotive styling and speed dictate the kind of car your children drive, says Miller. Giving young drivers a high-performance vehicle sends the wrong message and could risk their safety.

Because the first two years of driving are the riskiest for teens, Kathy Downing, the Auto Club’s Driving School manager, recommends that parents closely monitor their driving behaviors. To help kids improve their skills before getting a driver’s license, the Auto Club offers teen driving evaluations for its members.

Masoud Khoshbakhtian, the owner of Kay-1 Driving School in Long Beach, agrees with many safety experts who warn parents not to buy a large SUV for their young drivers. “They are more difficult to handle, especially for new drivers,” he says.

And though powerful cars like a Ford Mustang are attractive to teens, Khoshbakhtian says he advises parents not to purchase a high-performance vehicle or a new vehicle. He suggests staying between $4,000 to $5,000 for a first car.

Affordability is important, but parents should not give their teen an old hand-me-down vehicle or junker that could easily break down, says Miller. That doesn’t mean you have to spring for a new car: A dependable used or certified vehicle can be a good first car for your teen. A survey by AutoExtra.com, an online automotive classified business, found that 82% of the vehicles purchased for teens were used and 54% of them had sticker prices under $10,000.

But it’s important that parents and their teens spend time researching vehicles. To check the history of a used car, go to www.carfax.com.

For parents like Rozzi who want to put their teen in a vehicle that has the latest safety equipment, a new or late model vehicle may be the way to go. AutoExtra.com rated the 10 best used cars for teens; one featured model was the 2001 Honda Civic DX.

“Even though this car is small, it’s safe; the more air bags installed the better,” says Lauren Fix, an automotive expert who helped compile the list.

Jeanne Wright can be reached at jeanrite@aol.com.


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