By on August 12, 2020

The other week we brought you a list of best used car buys for teen drivers. Driver safety factored heavily into the choices compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Consumer Reports, with the cheapest offerings obviously being car-like in nature.

With their lower prices, cars remains the ride of choice among teens, despite the new vehicle market shifting violently away from traditional three-box conveyances. They’re also the type of vehicle teens are most likely to turn up dead in, and the trend shows little change, despite the rapidly evolving auto landscape.

A study of fatally injured U.S. drivers over a five-year span (2013-2017) reveals little variation in the trends previously identified by the IIHS in the 2008-2012 time frame. Over that latest half decade, “teens” (identified as 15- to 17-year-olds) involved in fatal collisions were overwhelmingly likely to be driving a car.

Some 63 percent of teen drivers killed were behind the wheel of a car, down only slightly from 64.2 percent for the 2008-2012 period. Of that group, 28 percent were driving a compact or subcompact car, with 24.9 percent behind the wheel of a midsize.

In comparison, drivers aged 35 to 50 killed during that time frame were in cars just 50.2 percent of the time.

Size matters when it comes to vehicle safety, but so does technology. And the fact that teens are more likely to be in an older small vehicle exacerbates the risk, skewing the stats towards cars. Some 38 percent of teen drivers killed in 2013-2017 were in a vehicle between 11 and 15 years of age, versus 31.6 percent for adult drivers. Only 3.7 percent of teen drivers killed over that period were in a vehicle ages three years or less.  Ford adults, the figure was 8.6 percent.

The advent of side curtain airbags and electronic stability control has made driving safer, but when pennies are short, older models lacking such features can appear in driveways. Hence the reason for the IIHS’ “safe teen car” list the other week.

“Teenage drivers killed in crashes in 2013–2017 were driving even older vehicles than teenage drivers killed in 2008–2012. Even so, adult drivers were also driving older vehicles in 2013 2017 than they were in the 2008–2012 interval,” the IIHS study noted.

“While this shift to older vehicles has had a bigger impact on teen drivers, it could be the result of broader market trends towards vehicles remaining on the roads longer. However, a 5-year-old vehicle in 2017 likely was more advanced than a 5-year-old vehicle in 2012, with improvements in crashworthiness and safety technology.”

What about trucks and SUVs, you ask? As those bodystyles proliferate, they’re starting to make up a larger share of teen fatality stats, but not by much. From the first study to the latest, IIHS notes the percentage of teen drivers dying in a pickup rising just one point (17.1 percent to 18.1 percent). For adults, that figure dropped from 25.7 percent to 24.4 percent.

SUVs-as-death-chariots rose for both age groups. For 2013-2017, some 17.2 percent of teen victims met their end in an SUV, while 22.9 percent of adult victims could say the same — a rise of just four-tenths of a percentage point for teens and 1.4 percent for adults.

As for minivans, their presence in this list, much like their presence in America’s  parking lots, is both insignificant and decreasing. Just 1.7 percent of fatally injured teens were piloting a minivan (down from 1.9 percent). Adults were more likely, comparatively, to be killed in one (3.6 percent, down 1 percent from 2008-2012).

While the IIHS applauds the introduction of graduated licensing laws in the U.S., it takes issue with the lack of progress, citing a need to go futher. States have not imposed the strongest available provisions, its states, “and efforts to pass new GDL legislation have essentially stopped in the past 5 years.”

As well, public health messaging directed at teen drivers seems to have had a minimal impact. There’s still a lot of work to be done to reduce teen driver fatalities, and the make and model and age of the car itself can’t be the one doing all the work.

[Image: General Motors]

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30 Comments on “IIHS: Small Cars Remain, by Far, the Deadliest Ride for Teens...”

  • avatar

    I couldn’t parse from the data, are bigger vehicles safer factoring for market share? SUVs are called “death chariots”. I wasn’t sure why besides they make up a percentage of deaths but that could be due to more being on the road.

  • avatar

    I’m always surprised at the number of fatals you read/see on the news where seatbelts aren’t being used. You can spend a lot of time finding the right crashmobile but if the seat belts aren’t being used, good luck.

  • avatar

    And the IIHS continues to use spurious correlations to make conventional cars look bad, and promote big SUVs.

    As this article says, more teens drive older, conventional, cars, because they are cheaper to buy and cheaper to run, thus skewing the data. But the headline for articles about the report will make cars look more dangerous for teens, rather than saying teens are more dangerous, regardless of what they drive.

    Recall, in the past year IIHS also defined the high safety ratings of passenger cars in it’s current crash tests as a problem, so changed their CUV analog crash test, to an analog of a bigger, heavier, taller SUV, to make passenger cars look worse.

  • avatar

    It’s always best to take anything from the IIHS with a grain of salt. They unashamedly have always pushed a pro-SUV agenda and have adamantly tried to sway people from smaller cars. The reports always seem biased.

    Yes, the laws of physics will typically dictate that a heavier vehicle will do better in an accident.

    But the IIHS’s message has always been buy a bigger, more expensive car even if you can’t afford it

  • avatar

    Young people can also simply be bad drivers who go too fast, take too many chances and pay less attention to the road. Personally I think cars are safer for young people because they’re less likely to roll over and tend to be front wheel drive with more predictable handling. I have personally known two families who lost children in accidents involving pickup trucks. In both cases speed and weather were significant factors – driving too fast for conditions and in one case blowing through a stop sign intentionally and fatally colliding with another vehicle.

  • avatar

    Is this a case where you can get statistics to say whatever the heck you want? I’ve always heard steel versus nimbleness is the trade-off.

    SUVs have more steel to crunch, but are tipsy, while cars are nimble and, given the correct driver, can more successfully evade the issue.

    • 0 avatar

      Your talking passive and active safety so Essuvees and Brodozers still win out. In order to take advantage of a car’s better dynamics drivers have to both be familiar with their vehicle and be proficient at driving. It also doesn’t help when a lot of people panic they lose all their marbles.

      On that last bit I remember reading a story about a crash survivor on a plane. The guy suffered some fractured bones, lacerations and bruising and he said he simply followed the instructions for when a plane goes down. The shocking part though was the number of Darwin Award winners that left their seats and started running around the plane in a panic.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’m very thankful that my five children have all survived to be 19+ so far, with no reportable accidents among them. They’re much better citizens than I was.

    Sadly, I’ve known at least 4 young people who have perished in cars…

    – A young man who was speeding and rolled right off a curve on my road growing up. He could have easily been doing 90+. I think of this every time I go by, and it’s probably been 45 years.

    – My cousin, who was broadsided by a red light runner circa 1980. He lingered for a couple years on life support. I think of this every time I’m tempted to run a light, or jackrabbit a green light.

    – A teen who died as a passenger when his driver friend fell asleep and they hit a tree. I think of this every time I drive drowsy.

    – A young girl who was killed in the second row of their SUV when it rolled over at the very moment she unbuckled. A decade later, it’s an effort for those parents to get through the day, but they have worked to make some good come out of it.

    Just watch some old crash test videos – they’re terrifying. At least with seatbelts, antilock, antiskid, airbags, and decent structural design, drivers of all ages have substantially better chances than we did decades ago.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Just before I got my license, My Old Man took me to the impound lot where the local police towed/stored vehicles that had been in serious Personal Injury Accidents and were being kept/inspected/taken apart for evidence.

    They let me wander, as I saw vehicles smashed in unimaginable ways, and often still with blood, hair, teeth or other human matter still evident.

    His version of ‘scaring me straight’. I was still an idiot but not quite as much of an idiot as many of my friends.

  • avatar

    A friend of mine bought his first new car at 22, a Ford Fiesta, it was all he could afford and only was able to afford that because his uncle was buddies with the owner of the dealership. He didn’t even really fit in the car well at all, and knew he had made a mistake, but he didn’t know how big a mistake it was.

    About a year after he bought it, he and his 18 year old brother were going through an intersection when they were hit by a woman in a ’78 Cutlass, doing all of about 30 MPH. His brother took the brunt of the hit, his right leg was badly broken, so was his right arm. He no longer looked like his brother anymore, he had severe facial injuries, and even after over a half dozen surgical procedures, he still has a face that makes people instantly know something bad happened to it. Obviously, the Ford was gone, and he decided to never own, or let a kid of his drive something that small. He took the insurance check for the Fiesta and bought a used Silverado. When his oldest kid started driving, she wound up with grandma’s 2007 Charger. His son drives an older Chevy Tahoe. It’s about the smallest thing he fits into, he’s 6’6 and gigantic.

  • avatar

    (old man rant) !_KIDS_! HARRUMPH .

    ? Maybe it’s time to bring back driver’s education in schools ? .

    I dunno, I wasn’t able to get it during high school and all I ever heard was endless stories about making out and smoking dope in the back of the class room as the teacher snoozed….

    I just wanted to see those gory films .

    I’m amazed I survied, like most kids I loved driving and thought I was good at it….

    I always wore seat belts when the jalopies had them and I ad them to any non equipped vehicle I buy or get good ones from junkyards, take apart & clean them, service the retractors and so on…

    ? Maybe the graduated driver’s license is a good idea ? .

    I hate the thought of my grand kids getting injured or killed .


  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Just spent time pulling the electronics from a 2006 Cobalt at the junk yard for a work lab project. It was hit hard but as it wasn’t labeled as a biohazard I assume it protected the occupants at least.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    Beyond the issue of vehicle age and design is the MIND of the teen driver.

    I am deeply grateful to a friend who encouraged my son and I to jointly attend the BRAKES teen driving school. The website is here:

    The program was created by a pro drag racer whose two sons perished in an auto crash while he was on tour. The half-day class is all about KEEPING IT REAL.

    The first half of the class is videos and discussion. The second half is outside–in REAL CARS donated by Kia. With racing drivers as guides, we (teen drivers AND the parents!) learned how to control skids, panic brake, etc.

    My son is now 21, and survived his teen driving years without issue. I am very thankful for the BRAKES program, and recommend it without heisitation to ALL FAMILIES WITH TEEN DRIVERS!!!

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Looks awesome, with a moving story behind it. Thank you for the info.

    • 0 avatar

      Lately I’ve been watching a lot of car crash videos in youtube. I have noticed that they really seem to help with defensive driving. You get to see a great variety of scenarios that can lead to an accident.

      (And, yes, before someone chimes in about the morbid fascination that probably got me started watching accident videos, I will say that I started watching them out of morbid interest — just like any good red-blooded American. The includes you: Lie2me. I hope this will save you from aggravating your carpal tunnel syndrome typing out some snide response;) )

  • avatar

    The kids that were given air-cooled VWs, especially girls, or it’s all they could afford, are better drivers throughout their lives, if they didn’t die in a crash before they could get a real car.

    • 0 avatar

      HEY ! .

      I’ll have you know that I’ve been driving VW Beetles dating back to the 1940’s for over 50 years now and ~

      Oh, wait .

      You’re right, never mind =8-^ .

      (who still loves to drive these death traps)

    • 0 avatar

      Neighbor kid up the street, a friend of my older brother, had a bug (a 1960’s air-cooled one) that he had hopped up. Unfortunately, he was involved in bad accident. It took quite a bit of surgery to rebuild his face. He was never an overly bright guy, but after the accident he was even less so. Those old bugs were rolling death traps.

      I remember many times in the sixties seeing wrecked cars with a bulge in the windshield in front of the driver. Heard stories about people having holes punched in the skull with the old metal knobs sticking way out of the dash. People used to die in 25 mph accidents. Modern cars are vastly safer in an accident.

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