Because few of us have the luxury of buying a new vehicle, wrapping it up in a bow, and handing it to our kid who has a newly minted beginner’s licence, it’s important to instead consider the best options for keeping that young driver - and everyone around them - safe as they gain experience in whatever they’re driving.
Choosing a vehicle for your teen to drive might be as simple as pointing to what’s already in the driveway, or as complicated as beginning the shopping process with their needs in mind. Modern vehicles are dramatically safer than those of even a couple of decades ago, but young drivers present their own considerations when it comes to car purchases.
If you’re car shopping for yourself and have a 12- or 13-year-old in your household, remember that in a few years, that young person will likely be learning how to drive on what you’re about to purchase. While all provinces have graduated licences to guide new drivers as they acquire this skill set, it’s still on you as a parent or guardian to make sure they’re driving something that’s safe while also meeting the learning curve they’re about to embark on.
Is bigger better?
It’s true that crash test rating institutions often reserve some of their highest accolades for the largest SUVs on our roads, but those are also immensely powerful vehicles that can be daunting for an inexperienced driver. They're frequently so high up that a driver can’t see what is right in front of them; they come equipped with a dazzling array of cameras and sensors because they have to in order for a driver to know what is happening outside the vehicle. So, be very cautious handing the keys to a behemoth to a new driver. Before they even start the engine, do a walkaround with them so they can determine what they can - and can’t - see from their perch behind the wheel.
A small car, then?
Consider the driving landscape your teen will be in. While you probably don’t want a young driver in a subcompact car competing with semis on some of North America’s busiest highways on a daily basis, smaller cars are definitely a benefit in our tight urban cores. Younger or less experienced drivers will feel more confident in a vehicle with better sightlines and fewer blind spots.
Actually, not a terrible idea. A sedan has a hood and a trunk to absorb the impact of a collision, a lower hood height that is safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and oftentimes it’s the only segment in the market where you can still find a decent deal when it comes to cost. Vehicle sizes have grown so much, it’s easy to forget that what today we consider “average” is very much the larger sedan of ten years ago. Anticipate some scratches to the paint and some curb rash on wheel covers; if it’s happening too frequently, it could be a sign that some more lessons are in order.
How they drive – not what they drive
Ultimately, your teen’s success as a driver will rely far more on how they drive than what they drive. They’ve been watching how you drive since they were in car seats, so it’s never too soon to start modelling the behaviour you expect of them:
● Talk about distractions: Most cars are laden with screens that a driver needs to interact with for everything from controlling the temperature to changing a radio station. While a ‘no phone’ rule seems obvious, consider the ‘necessary’ interactions that can be just as bad.
● Discuss what all the dash lights mean: A symbol suddenly appearing can be concerning for someone who’s never seen it happen before. Get out the manual, go through every symbol, and determine a plan of action for if one comes on.
● Who can drive the car: Head off trouble - including legal trouble - ahead of time. Explain that insurance goes with the car, and anyone behind the wheel is being entrusted with your insurance rating. If a friend is allowed to drive, that permission has to come from you.
● Tell them they need to be honest: If they get a moving violation like a speeding ticket, it will show on their driver’s abstract if your insurance company runs it. Respect their honesty by not losing your cool - we’ve all made mistakes.
● Let them know how many mistakes you’re willing to live with: On that note, one mistake is a good number.
● Have CAA or equivalent: Arm your teen with answers to all the ‘what ifs’ you can think of. Lack of experience doesn’t have to mean lack of confidence, so give them the tools to handle the unexpected.
● Mechanical basics: Many people couldn’t locate their hazard lights if they closed their eyes, yet an emergency occurring when you can’t take your eyes off the road is exactly when you should be able to do that. Practice. They may never have to change a flat tire, but they should know where it is. Explain that with a sudden loss of power, they still have braking and steering capabilities - it’s just tougher to do; you can steer to safety if you know what’s happening.
● Once they’re legally able to have passengers in the vehicle, discuss how many: Friends on board can be incredibly distracting so be explicit in what you are willing to accept - and what you won’t allow.
It’s an exciting time for teens – just keep it a safe one.