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Choosing the Safest Vehicle for Your Teen

Getting a driver’s license is a celebratory moment for both teen and parent. It’s also a time when many parents share the keys to the oldest car in the family – after all, the thinking goes, there’s a good chance it’s going to get banged up anyway.

But driving experts like Rob Foss, Ph.D., say that thinking is backward. “Parents should put teens in the newest, safest car in the family,” says Rob, who directs the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Young Drivers. “The tendency is to put them in the junker, but with that rationale, you’re putting a higher priority on the car than on the person.”

If you aren’t sure which car in the family offers the best protection, check out the safety ratings. The government’s five-star rating system rates cars in terms of collision safety (, as does the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety ( Consumer Reports also offers detailed reports on vehicle safety features available on each vehicle model.

While no car – no matter is how safe it is – is guaranteed to protect against accidents, here are a few common safety features available in newer cars:

  • Electronic stability control, which senses when the car is starting to lose control and automatically applies the brake to one or more wheels to turn the vehicle in the appropriate direction. It is mostly found in full-size vehicles that are more prone to rollovers.
  • Forward collision warning signals when the car gets too close to another car, serving as an alert to brake or steer.
  • Lane departure warning senses and monitors lane markings and warns when the car is unintentionally drifting or leaving the road altogether.
  • Back-up auto sensors can be installed on the back bumper to help detect anything behind the car when it’s in reverse.

Other features, such as low tire-pressure monitoring, automatic headlights and rain trackers can also be useful to drivers – new and experienced.

While the bells and whistles are helpful, they shouldn’t take the place of good practices and consistent awareness, says Jim Kennedy, a driving rehabilitation specialist at Shepherd Center. “If you become dependent on these devices, and they malfunction, then you risk putting yourself and your passengers in danger.”

A video camera in the back of the vehicle, for example, has the potential to get drivers out of the habit of checking mirrors. If the camera is blocked or has sun glare, objects are never seen.

“These features are nice to have,” he says, “but you can’t depend on cameras and warning sounds to tell you if you are going to hit something. Nothing is better than a visual.”

Homer Stillwell of Accident Avoidance Workshops says the best safety device may be the “off” switch. “The phone has one, the radio has one, the iPod has one and so on,” he says. “Drivers who are responsible enough to use the off switch are always safer than those who don’t.”

Written by Sara Baxter
Photography by Meg Porter

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.