- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

Taylor Warner, 15, of Berryville, Va., just got her first car ” a dark blue Honda Civic. “It’s supposed to be a reliable, safe car. I’ve never heard anything bad about Hondas,” Taylor says. “I’m really happy I can get a car at this age.”

The Honda Civic wasn’t her first choice — she says something sporty like a Mustang would be her dream ” but she understands her parents’ concerns about reliability and safety.

Chris Tilley, general manager at Carmax in Sterling, Va., where Taylor looked at cars a few weeks ago, says it’s common for parents and teens to have differing ideas about a teen’s first car.

“Typically, parents’ top priorities are price, reliability and safety, while teens are more concerned with style, features and performance,” Mr. Tilley says.

When they say “performance,” they often mean “muscle cars,” such as Camaros or Mustangs, he says.

The teens’ favored features definitely should take a back seat to the parents’ priorities, says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Arlington-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research organization funded by auto insurers.

“The car the teen wants to drive is probably the one you don’t want them to drive,” Mr. Rader says. “Since teens, particularly beginning drivers, are the riskiest drivers behind the wheel, you want to have the safest vehicle you can get.”

A 16-year-old is four times as likely to have an accident as drivers 20 and older, according to the insurance institute. One of the main components in fatal crashes in this age group is speed, which is why a muscle car is not ideal for a teen, he says.

It’s in the first year of driving that a teen is most likely to have a crash, Mr. Rader says. In fact, the crash rate per mile driven is twice as high among 16-year-olds as it is among 18- and 19-year-olds, he says.

“You’ve got the twin demons of inexperience behind the wheel and a penchant to take risks,” he says.

Car talk

Before any car purchase is made, it’s important to determine whether a teen really needs a car.

“I tell the students to sit down with their parents and do a needs assessment,” says John Duffy, a driver education teacher at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax. “They all want a car, but do they really need one?”

He says he suggests they think not only about their immediate situation, but also a few years down the road. Will they need a car in college? Or do they expect to be in a big city with public transportation?

Taylor and her parents decided she needs a car because she’s involved in three varsity sports — volleyball, basketball and soccer — and the family lives in a rural area. At this point, however, Taylor has to have a grown-up in the car when she’s driving because she only has a learner’s permit.

“We hope that I’ll be able to keep this car through high school and college,” Taylor says.

Hony Peirola, 16, one of Mr. Duffy’s students, says he expects he’ll get a car in the summer or fall because his family needs him to drive.

“It’ll be a family car, like a Honda Accord, so I can help drive my mother places. She doesn’t have a license,” Hony says. “My dream car is like a [Ford] Mustang or a [Toyota] Supra, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Once it has been established whether the teen needs a car, it’s time to start planning when, how and what to buy, says Susan Shelly, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Money for Teens.”

“I think the planning should start early — even before your teen is driving age,” Ms. Shelly says.

She suggests that parents and teen talk about how much money the teen is expected to contribute toward the purchase of the car and the insurance.

“I think they should contribute something. It’s verging on irresponsible to let them have the car without any obligation,” she says. “It’s harder to appreciate something that’s just been handed to you.”

Mr. Tilley at Carmax says parents and teens usually agree that the price for the car should be in the $8,000 to $12,000 range. A recent Carmax search showed a 2001 Toyota Camry with about 50,000 miles at a little less than $12,000 and a 2000 Ford Taurus with about the same mileage for $8,699. Both cars do well in crash tests, Mr. Tilley says.

Ms. Shelley says saving for a car — or saving to contribute to the purchase of a car — can be a good financial lesson.

“The first thing it teaches is, if something is valuable, you need to plan for it and work for it,” she says. “A car is usually the first purchase someone makes, and it can be a blueprint for major purchases down the road. You learn what kind of sacrifices you might have to make.”

Ideally, if a car loan is involved, it’s in the parents’ name because they likely will get a better interest rate. The teen, however, should agree to pay part of the cost, she says.

“You could even write a contract between the teen and the parents,” she says.

The car insurance also should be in the parents’ names because it’s often possible to get rebates if there are multiple vehicles on one policy, says Caroline Gorman, vice president for the District-based Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit communications organization funded by insurance companies.

“It’s going to raise their policy considerably. If you have a boy, you can expect to pay $600 to $800 more a year. It could be even more,” Ms. Gorman says.

She says it’s often possible to get lower rates if the teen has good grades and the parents have good driving records.

The main thing to think about, insurance-wise, when it comes to teens is liability insurance, she says.

“You need to have the most liability insurance that you can afford,” she says. “I can’t stress that enough.”

An eye on safety

In addition to researching and planning how to finance the car purchase and insurance, the teen also should look into car safety ratings, says Johanna Bodnyk, the 23-year-old author of “Real U Guide to Buying Your First Car.”

“I think the most important thing is to really take the time to do the research,” she says. “There is so much information on the Web.”

Teens and their parents can go to the Web sites for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to see how various cars perform in crash tests.

“You want a car that’s forgiving if the teen overcorrects — a midsize or larger car,” Mr. Rader says.

He says teens should stay away from smaller cars as well as sport utility vehicles and trucks, which have a higher rate of rolling over when the driver overcorrects or overreacts while driving.

“Teens are particularly vulnerable in those kinds of vehicles because a driving situation that could be easy for an experienced driver becomes an emergency for the teen,” he says.

Mr. Tilley of Carmax says cars that seem to fulfill both the parents’ safety and reliability demands and the teen’s requirement for looks and performance include the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Pontiac Grand Am and Mitsubishi Lancer.

Cathy and Lee Warner, Taylor’s parents, liked the Honda Civic best because of its performance in crash tests, Mrs. Warner says.

“I did a lot of research on the Internet, and the Honda Civic does very well,” Mrs. Warner says. “We got one that has side air bags. That was important to me.”

But, it’s not just the safer sedan choices that sell well among teens, Mr. Tilley says. He also sells a lot of smaller sport utility vehicles, such as Ford Escapes, Toyota RAV-4s and Honda CRVs.

Though she drives a hand-me-down 1984 sedan, Ms. Bodnyk says she understands teens are concerned about the look of the car, particularly if they share the payments for it.

“You want the aesthetic experience to be satisfying. If the car’s safe, but hideous, [a teen is] not going to feel good about writing the check every month,” Ms. Bodnyk says.

Mr. Duffy — who says he never advocates any particular make or model — says he recommends that whether teens and parents pick a sport utility vehicle or sedan, the young driver should practice driving the type of car they plan to buy. Knowing how the car performs in certain situations is part of being safe on the road, he says.

He also recommends that teens who know themselves to be speed fiends stay away from muscle cars.

“If you know yourself and you like to ride the roller coaster, then a muscle car is probably not for you,” he says.

Many teens opt for used cars, and Mr. Tilley (whose company does inspections in-house) and Ms. Bodnyk both agree that taking a used car to a mechanic to make sure it’s in sound condition is very important.

“It might seem expensive, but you could save so much trouble and money down the road by having it checked out,” Ms. Bodnyk says.

Freedom, responsibility

As the prime car-buying seasons — spring and summer — approach, many teens will enjoy new freedom and independence as they get behind the wheel of their very first car.

Taylor says it was the greatest feeling to show her friends her new car after basketball practice on a recent evening.

“I just love it. It drives really smooth,” she says.

Of the look on her daughter’s face right after the purchase, Mrs. Warner says, “The smiles just kept getting bigger.”

However, the freedom and independence a car offers come with strings attached, namely responsibility, Mr. Duffy tells his class of high school students, who were solemn one recent morning after watching a film about teens and fatal traffic accidents.

“You can’t control what others do, but you can control your speed and position in your lane. It’s critical that you manage these things,” he says. “Just remember, there are no do-overs or take-backs.”

He also discusses alcohol and driving, driving at night and having friends in the car.

Woodson student Christine Bass, 15, says Mr. Duffy’s class has made an impact on her.

“I know that we’re inexperienced and that it will take us several years of just watching and being defensive drivers,” says Christine, who is planning to get a car this summer.

Hony says he has learned through Mr. Duffy’s class that having friends in the car is unsafe because they can distract the driver.

“And maybe you want to show off and go faster,” he says.

Having two or more friends in the car increases the crash risk by five times for a teen driver, Mr. Rader says.

Maryland, Virginia and the District all have graduated licensing for teens, meaning young drivers face restricted driving, including adult supervision, for several months until they get their full privileges. The graduated licensing also puts limits on night driving and the number of teenage passengers.

Even with all the limitations in place, teens still crash much more often than adults, Mr. Rader says, and he recommends that parents hold off a year or two before allowing their teens to have a car. During those years, the parents should supervise and encourage the teens to practice driving in different traffic environments and as often as possible, he says.

“But to the extent you can control the car keys with a beginning driver, the better, Mr. Rader says. “Getting behind the wheel is probably the riskiest thing a 16-year-old will do.”

More info:

Books —

• “Real U Guide to Buying Your First Car,” by Johanna Bodnyk, Real U Guides, 2004. This book gives advice on finding an affordable new car or decent used one, arranging financing and shopping for auto insurance.

• “Strategies for Smart Car Buyers,” by Edmunds.com and Phillip Reed, Edmunds Publications, 2003. This book offers step-by-step buying and leasing strategies for first-time car buyers.

• “Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens,” by Phil Berardelli, Nautilus Communications, 2000. This book aims to help teens understand and develop safe driving behavior. It offers 10 lessons, which include skill-building exercises and tips.

• “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Money for Teens,” by Susan Shelly, Alpha Books, 2001. This book gives teens ideas on how to get money, save and invest it, budget it, spend it and keep track of it. “The Wheels Thing” chapter discusses and gives tips on buying a first car.

Associations —

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 400 Seventh St. SW, Washington DC 20590. Phone: 888/327-4236. Web site: www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/testing. NHTSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is responsible for reducing deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. It provides safety information on motor vehicles.

• Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 1005 N. Glebe Road, Suite 800, Arlington, VA 22201. Phone: 703/247-1500. Web site: www.hwysafety.org. This nonprofit research organization funded by auto insurers offers information on teens and driving, including what type of cars are the best, safest choices for them.

• Safe Smart Women, 1201 Noyes Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Phone: 410/562-1008. Web site: www.s2w.org. This nonprofit group promotes driving safety strategies and car-care awareness among young women. It also gives advice on teens and first cars, including the importance of selecting a car that has as many safety features as possible. The group offers free car-care clinics.

Online —

• Bankrate Inc. (bankrate.com) is a North Palm Beach, Fla.-based Internet consumer finance company. It has online articles about teens and first cars, including information on auto insurance.

• Edmunds.com (edmunds. com) is an online car guide publisher. Its Web site has a five-part series of articles on teen safety. It covers topics such as teen-related risk factors, statistics on teen driving and safe cars.

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