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Should your teen be driving that old car?

When it comes to crash-worthiness, technology and innovation have made a big difference over the past few years. That means that newer cars often have features that help make them safer to drive. Moreover, research has shown that larger vehicles are safer in crashes than very small cars.

Yet according to a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), teen drivers are much more likely than adults to be driving older, smaller cars. Yet teens are among the most crash-prone drivers.

Teens get into more crashes. Shouldn't they have safer cars?

Past research has found that, although teens drive less than older people, they crash approximately four times as often relative to the amount they drive. Yet despite our knowing that teens are much more likely to be involved in crashes, we continue to put them in the least safe vehicles.

"It's understandable that parents don't want to shell out big bucks for their teen's first car, and they probably don't realize how much safer a newer, larger vehicle is," says the lead author of the study. "Small vehicles don't protect as well in a crash, and older vehicles are less likely to be equipped with essential safety equipment."

The IIHS study involved two questions. First, are teens driving older, smaller vehicles than older people? The answer is yes. Of those teens killed in crashes between 2013-2017, over a quarter were driving micro, mini, or small cars. Adults were more likely to be driving newer, larger vehicles.

According to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, teens spent at least half of their time in vehicles that were more than 11 years old. That was compared to less than 30% for older people.

The second question was whether the cars teens drive contain less effective safety technology. The answer, again, is yes. The researchers compared crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System and vehicle data from the IIHS's Highway Loss Data Institute.

The researchers found that teens were less likely to drive cars with standard side airbags or electronic stability control systems. Indeed, they were more likely than older people to be driving models so old that those weren't even optional features. That said, electronic stability control was mandated for all new cars in 2012, so the problem should gradually phase out.

They also found that the average curb weight of the vehicles driven by teens was 250 pounds lighter than that of the vehicles driven by older adults.

In an effort to reduce this effect, the IIHS and Consumer Reports collaborated on a list of good used cars teens can choose from. Is your teen's car on the list?

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