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One official at the Automobile Club of Southern California recommends a late-model regular-cab pickup truck as a good first vehicle for a teen—it has more size and mass than many economically priced sedans, and it sits higher on the road. An added benefit: few passengers.

So what's a parent to do when the time comes for a teenage son or daughter to get the keys to his or her own car? Locking that son or daughter in their room until they turn 21 is not an option, but there are steps a parent can take to make sure teenagers are as safe as possible on the road.

The conventional wisdom has been to find a big, if ancient, American car, one of those so-called Detroit land yachts that provides a thick cocoon of sheet metal around your child. But maybe what you really need is a secondhand Volvo; they always had a reputation for being safe, didn't they? Or what about a sport-utility vehicle? It might be tippy, but it lifts your child above the threat of other vehicles' fenders, doesn't it?

But don't those really sound like vehicles more suited to a demolition derby than a high school parking lot? Isn't it more important to put your son or daughter in a vehicle they'll be proud to drive, especially one equipped with such modern safety features as anti-lock brakes and airbags?

They all sound like valid questions and could lead to good answers. So what's a parent to do? Cut through the clutter as highway safety experts examine four key questions.

Does Size Matter?
"The heavier the vehicle the better," says Michael Smith, a research psychologist who works in traffic safety programs for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "This is a physics lesson: When two things run into each other, the heaviest wins."

Size matters absolutely," adds David Cavano, manager of auto purchasing services for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "It's a big issue, especially when you get on a freeway. Get into a small, two-door car and pull up next to a sport-utility vehicle. The bumpers just don't match. The higher you sit on the freeway, the more the chassis and frame are going to absorb the impact.

"Kids think they're indestructible, so parents have to do it (provide protection) for them," he adds. "Parents ought to be trying to protect the lives of their kids."

That's what Cavano plans to do for his own daughter, even if she doesn't agree with his vehicle of choice.

Cavano's 15-year-old daughter is beginning driver's training classes, but already they're having heated discussions about her first set of wheels. "She'd rather not drive than drive a clunker," Dad knows. "But she'll be in a pickup truck, and there's room for only one other person in that truck. There's a problem when kids go off with five friends: There are too many distractions for the driver. Sure, a pickup gets poor gas mileage, but it sits higher on the road. The reality is that I'd rather have her in a bigger, stronger vehicle."

New or Used?
"Most parents are stuck with used vehicles for their teenagers," says Cavano. "The parents already are buying their cars on payments, so they're forced to look at used cars." Besides, he adds, the insurance premium on a new car primarily driven by a teenager "is exorbitant."

Scott Beamon, a first sergeant with the Indiana State Police, also realizes that most parents are forced to buy a used car for their new drivers. "We would recommend doing research," he says, suggesting that parents check government crash-testing results for vehicles under consideration, and that they make sure those vehicles have good safety equipment.

"If a vehicle is (very) old, it may not have an airbag," he says. "Get as many safety features as possible."

And, he adds, don't forget to check the tires, headlight and taillights, and to make sure safety equipment is in good working order. "Make sure you have the proper tire pressures," he says, "and that the turn signals work properly."

When his children were beginning to drive, Volvo's product communications manager Dan Johnston put them into a series of used cars. Of course, all of those cars were Volvos. The marque's reputation was well-earned through its early implementation of safety equipment—a Volvo engineer invented the three-point seat belt—and with chassis structure that provided good occupant protection in crashes.

Johnston bought inexpensive used cars, in the sub-$500 range. They still had good engines and transmissions, he says, but he often had to replace such things as U-joints, brakes and mufflers. They may not have been the prettiest cars on the road, he admits, but "at least they were safe."

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "Teenagers should drive vehicles that reduce their chances of a crash and offer state-of-the-art protection in case they do crash."

Based on the IIHS guidelines and crash test results reported at www.iihs.org, late model cars that parents should consider include the Buick LeSabre, Chevrolet Lumina, Ford Taurus (or its twin, the Mercury Sable), Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Subaru Legacy and Volkswagen Passat as well as others of similar size that come with modern safety equipment and have scored well in crash-test ratings.

Like the IIHS, NHTSA does crash testing, and has those results, as well as a 23-page "Buying a Safer Car" brochure, at www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

Unsafe at Any Speed?
"Lots of kids pressure mom and dad to get a cool, sporty convertible," says the Auto Club's Cavano. "But parents have to get beyond what the kid wants and focus on what's in the best interest of the child's safety.

"Stay away from two-seater pocket rockets, cars that zip and zag," Cavano says of vehicles that are so popular with teenage drivers.

Cavano's not alone in that belief. Insurance information Web site Insure.com recently published a list of what it considers to be the safest and deadliest cars of all time. The safest, all 2000 or 2001 models because the site considered only cars with side airbags and high ratings in IIHS and NHTSA crash tests, were the Buick LeSabre, Honda Civic, Lincoln LS, Volkswagen Passat and Volvo S80.

And the deadliest cars? The Chevrolet Camaro and its cousin, the Pontiac Firebird, as well as the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Mustang. According to the Web site, each of these cars "come equipped with large engines, appeal to a young male demographic, and are relatively inexpensive compared with some imported sports cars."

Car or Driver?
Regardless of the vehicle, safety experts agree that the most important factor is the proper training of the driver.

"What the person does behind the wheel is more important than the vehicle specifically," says NHTSA's Smith. "What we recommend for young people is graduated licensing and that they're adequately prepared."

In states without graduated licensing, Smith recommends that parents create their own program. Under a graduated system, a young driver must demonstrate responsible behavior and meet experience requirements in various road conditions before advancing from a learner's permit to a provisional license and finally to a full license.

"Driving is very difficult," he reminds. "We take it for granted because we've been driving for a number of years, but it's a complicated, lengthy learning process. Insurance rates for young people do not come down until age 25. Until that age, a young person is over represented in crashes. They have not learned to be a good driver."

According to a joint statement by the IIHS and NHTSA, teenagers have the highest involvement rates in all types of crashes per-mile-traveled. The problem is worst among the youngest drivers, 16-year-olds who combine immaturity with inexperience. In fatal crashes involving 17 to 19-year-old drivers, driver error is a factor in 75 percent of crashes and speeding is a factor in 31 percent. But among 16 year olds, those figures are 80 percent and 36 percent, respectively. In addition, 41 percent of fatal accidents involving 16-year-old drivers are single-vehicle mishaps.

"We recommend a night-time curfew, zero alcohol involvement, and that the parent use a contract or something similar, writing up the driving privileges of the young person—when, where, with whom.

"The key to the whole program working is the adult involvement. They've raised someone for 16 years, but they're not done yet. There's a greater chance they're going to lose this young person to an automobile accident in the next couple of years than to anything before."

One way to improve the odds for your child is a specialized teenage driving skills program. There are several relatively inexpensive (around $300) one-day programs that teach accident avoidance skills to young drivers.

"Our biggest recommendation deals with what the driver does with the vehicle," says Indiana State trooper Beamon. "The responsibilities and the liabilities that go with it are what we stress.

"The vehicle is like a weapon. We talk about guns and knives, but that vehicle, if you drive it recklessly, is worse than a handgun. It can be the most deadly thing you have."

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