What Sort of Car Should I Buy For My Young Driver? The Answer Isn’t What It Used to Be

Young Driver - Is an Older Car a Safe Option?
Modern cars feature a host of safety feature to keep a young driver safe than older cars. [Photo: Volvo]

Thanks to advances in safety technology, conventional wisdom for what makes a good first car has changed.

Back in the good old days – parents always answered in unison when the question of what to buy junior for his or her first car came up. “Something big, ugly, slow and safe”. Even a decade ago, that conventional wisdom held true. Odds are, big old barges offered the best protection for new drivers. It makes sense on a fundamental level. If you place more metal between a young driver, they’ll end up safer in the event of a collision. After all, might is right, isn’t it? Now, though, things have changed.

The New York Times recently published a piece on parents’ typical thought process regarding their child’s first car. However, as modern cars tack on more and more safety systems, the old reasoning doesn’t hold up quite as well. According to Alex Epstein, director of transportation safety at the National Safety Council, the number one cause of accidents is inexperience. While in older cars, it made sense to buy something big, ugly and slow, new safety systems help the odds in young drivers’ favor.

New cars come absolutely loaded with driver assistance technology. Take automatic forward braking, blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control, to name just a few. With these new systems, modern cars have an extra set of eyes and ears to watch out for the driver. They offer an extra layer of protection for all of us out there on the roads.

Several manufacturers have some form of an autonomous driving function, although you have to keep your hands on the wheel. [Photo: Volvo]

Which features should you aim for?

Of course, there’s a catch to buying a car laden with the advanced safety systems: cost. Most often, systems like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and autonomous emergency braking are bundled into expensive packages. Even when buying used, these systems drive up the car’s value. However, if you go the cheap and cheerful route, you buy a car that’s devoid these safety systems. Furthermore, crash testing has become much tougher in recent years. As a result, we have much better built cars. Crash an older car into a newer car, and even without the new safety systems, the more modern car would win.

So what can you do. Per the New York Times report, “Buy as much safety as you can afford.” Cars built within the past six years have electronic stability control as standard equipment. It’s arguably the most important piece of safety tech, as it helps keep the car from skidding out of control in a sudden evasive maneuver. Used cars within the past couple years should also have automatic emergency braking or forward collision warning as standard equipment.

Is an Older Car Safest for a Young Driver?
Some manufacturers are also developing systems to prevent drivers backing in to objects while parking. [Photo: Toyota]
When the worst happens, it also helps to go for a car with better crash test ratings. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) publishes crash test results online. The Institute has a search feature to find your specific car to see how it performs. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also posts crash test results as a score out of five-stars.

The Times also suggests leasing a newer car in lieu of buying an older car, if you’re concerned about having the latest safety systems. To learn more about what features specific cars have, the National Safety Council set up a website at mycardoeswhat.org.

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