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Should you trade cars with your teenager?

Compared to older drivers, teens crash about four times as often relative to the number of miles driven. We know instinctively that teens are at a greater risk for a car crash. That's why some parents buy their teenage sons and daughters cheap old junkers to drive.

"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," commented a scientist with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "Small vehicles don't protect as well in a crash, and older vehicles are less likely to be equipped with essential safety equipment."

It may once have made sense to relegate your teen to the oldest, cheapest car available. You know they're likely to get into a crash; it's a combination of inexperience and underestimation of the risks. But today's cars are substantially safer than models made just a decade ago.

If your goal is to keep everyone in the family as safe as possible, you might want to put your teen in a larger, more modern vehicle and take that old junker for yourself.

Teens drive older, smaller cars

In a recent study, the IIHS examined the vehicles teens tend to drive and whether they were actually less safe than the ones their parents are driving. They were.

Among teens killed in crashes between 2013 and 2017, almost two thirds had been driving vehicles six to 15 years old. More than a quarter had been driving cars classified as micro, mini or small. Meanwhile, adults tended to crash in larger, newer vehicles.

That carried through to miles driven. According to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey, teens drove at least half their miles in vehicles over 11 years old, while that was true for less than 30% of adults.

Older, smaller cars are less crashworthy

With small cars, it's a simple matter of physics. A shorter front end offers less protection, and a smaller mass can absorbs less force than a larger one. In a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle tends to sustain less damage.

Moreover, today's vehicles come with more advanced safety features than just a few years ago. Yet teens are less likely to drive a vehicle equipped with two major improvements: side airbags and electronic stability control. In fact, they were more likely to be driving vehicles where those features weren't even options.

Is your teen driving a vehicle that won't hold up to that likely crash? The IIHS has teamed up with Consumer Reports to issue recommendations for safer used vehicles for teens to drive.

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