Which used cars are safest for young drivers?

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ARLINGTON, Va. (July 17, 2014) – When parents buy the first car for their teenagers, they typically buy used.

That’s because many families can’t afford a brand-new car. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 83 percent of parents surveyed ended up getting a used car for their teenager.

IIHS makes its picks every year for the safest vehicles, but many of this year’s safest vehicles aren’t in the budget for many families. With that in mind, the group put together its first-ever list of top safety picks among used cars.

The IIHS survey found that parents most commonly bought smaller vehicles for the children. A little more than half of those used vehicles were 2006 models or earlier—a problem, IIHS said, because those older vehicles may not have as many safety features as new models. Specifically, the group mentioned side airbags and electronic stability control (ESC).

Teenagers who got a “hand me down” car were even more likely to drive an older model. Two-thirds of parents surveyed had given those teen drivers cars from 2006 or earlier.

A different IIHS report showed teenagers killed in crashes were more likely to have driven small vehicles and older ones:

A separate IIHS study shows that teenagers killed in crashes are more likely than adults to have been behind the wheel of small vehicles and older vehicles. Among fatally injured drivers ages 15-17 in 2008-12, 29 percent were in minicars or small cars, while 20 percent of fatally injured drivers ages 35-50 were. Eighty-two percent of the young teen drivers were in vehicles that were at least 6 years old, compared with 77 percent of those in the adult group.

IIHS has four guiding principles when selecting cars for teenager drivers:

  • Limit horsepower because more powerful engines can tempt drivers to test a car’s limits
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles offer better protection in case of a crash (IIHS didn’t choose any minicars or small cars on the recommended list)
  • ESC is a must-have feature because it helps drivers control their vehicle on curves and slippery roads; IIHS said the safety benefits were comparable to seatbelts
  • Vehicles should have the best safety ratings possible; that means good ratings in the moderate overlap front test, acceptable ratings in the side crash test and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The group separated its recommendations into two categories: recommended vehicles for under $20,000 and recommended vehicles for under $10,000. If you can’t find a car on the list, IIHS recommends a midsize or larger car, SUV or minivan with as many safety features as possible. In addition to ESC, you should look for side airbags and low horsepower.

You can find the complete list here.