How Much Safety Technology Should A Teen Driver Purchase?

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There’s a debate raging over at the Car Talk Communities about advanced safety technology and teen drivers.

“I’ve noticed your partiality to all the new safety features available on today’s cars – automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning and rear cross traffic alert, amongst others,” writes Michael Britten.

With his own teen grandchildren about to take the wheel, he asked: “Don’t you feel it is important for new young drivers to understand what defensive driving is all about? Once they have mastered this concept, then, sure, let them wallow in all the technology.”

Our friends at Car Talk were teen driving safety advocates long before the manufacturers started producing cars with advanced safety technology. In fact, they just produced a new Teen Driving Toolkit with a lot of data, plus a handy contract to sign with your kids as they venture out for their first solo miles in the car.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and we’ll try to dig through it bit by bit.

Teen Driving Statistics

Getting behind the wheel has been — and still is — one of the most dangerous activities your teen can engage in. According to the Centers for Disease Control:

  • In 2015, 2,333 teens in the United States ages 16–19 were killed and 235,845 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes.
  • Six teens of driving age die every day from motor vehicle injuries.
  • In 2013, young people ages 15-19 represented only 7% of the U.S. population. However, they accounted for 11% ($10 billion) of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries.
  • Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.
  • In 2016, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 16 to 19 was two times that of their female counterparts.
  • The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with the number of teen passengers.
  • The fatal crash rate per mile driven is nearly twice as high for 16 to 17 year olds as compared to 18to 19 year olds, indicating that teens with newly minted licenses are at much greater risk.

Driver Training

Despite all the evidence that teens are at tremendous risk behind the wheel, Americans do a horrendous job of training new drivers.

It’s true that in recent years, most states have instituted some type of graduated licenses for new teens that attempt to alleviate some of the risk factors enumerated above. For example, in Massachusetts, new drivers under the age of 18 have a curfew of 12:00am, and are also restricted from driving with anyone under the age of 21.

But in most states, “Driver’s Ed” exists for two reasons:

  • To provide teens with the state-required driving and observation hours behind the wheel
  • To practice what they’ll face when they take their road test

Road tests vary by state, but almost none of the road tests evaluate teens on skills that can either avoid a crash or mitigate its effects.

For example, the road test in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts evaluates whether subjects can use hand signals and consistently keep both hands on the steering wheel. The 175-page official Massachusetts Driver’s Manual contains EIGHT PAGES of information on obtaining a title, but never once mentions winter tires, how to use anti-lock brakes effectively to avoid a collision, or how stability control works.

To its credit, it does reference having tires properly inflated ONCE on page 80, so yay!


There’s a lot of semi-autonomous, advanced safety technology coming at us today and in the coming years. With that technology comes a rash of studies — sometimes from the very same agencies — that come to different, contradictory results.

For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has been at the forefront of studying advanced collision avoidance systems, but its results can be problematic. All the way back in 2012, when the industry was just starting to implement collision avoidance technologies, the group’s Highway Loss Data Institute noted that such features were reducing crashes by 14 percent.

On the other hand, in a 2018 study, the IIHS noted that such technologies had particular problems, including significant issues on hills and curves. Advanced cruise control performance was also singled out too-abrupt braking, or failure to brake at all in some tests.

That doesn’t even begin to discuss the reality that lane-keeping, reverse-sensing, and advanced cruise control technologies simply DO NOT WORK in inclement weather, when both new and experienced drivers could use the most help.

None of the adaptive cruise control systems are designed to be used in the snow, and, according to experts like our own John Paul, and the people we talked to at Tire Rack, cruise control — whether advanced or not — shouldn’t be used in the rain at all.

Similarly, Forward Collision Warning technology — an audible and visual warning that a collision is imminent, usually paired with Automatic Emergency Braking — is rendered meaningless in snowy conditions when sensors are covered, or when forward-looking cameras can’t see through the snow any better than your eyes can. Many sensors can also be rendered useless by bright sunlight, especially a problem in the morning and afternoon commute hours in the fall and winter.

The bottom line: According to the IIHS, “[Forward Collsion Warning] alone and FCW with [Automatic Emergency Braking] are effective in reducing rear-end crashes,” but those technologies are only effective when they work, so the driver has to be trained and experienced and cannot rely on technology alone.


The current top search in Google for “best cars for teens” results in a list of new cars that range in price from $18,500 to $40,000, and used cars that range from $16,000 to $25,000. Of course, that’s right in the range of the average price for new cars ($35,000) and used cars ($19,400) in 2018.

You can buy a lot of advanced safety technology in entry level cars today, but that’s a relatively new concept. Manufacturers like Toyota have bundled all of its advanced technology — a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert and automatic high beams — into the Toyota Safety Sense package, which is standard on one of its least expensive vehicles, the Toyota Yaris.

But that’s on vehicles from 2017 forward. The Yaris starts at $15,635, and most popularly equipped Yarii at an average dealership range from $17,500 to $18,500 before discounts.

I’m not sure about you, but we’re plowing all we can into 529 programs, orthodontia and basic expenses. If I can relate a personal experience, I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter at home who is interested in buying her own transportation when she reaches driving age, which in Massachusetts is 16 1/2. She worked all this summer and fall at an apple orchard and saved $1,200. By the time she reaches driving age, she’ll probably have $3,500 to $4,000 in her savings account. We have agreed to match whatever she saves so she can purchase a halfway decent car.

That’s a long ways from $17,000, and we’re not about to encourage her to saddle herself with a car payment when she’s likely going to have to pay loans to cover some of her college education. We don’t even buy $17,000 cars for ourselves, let alone a kid who’s probably going to bump into every gas pump and mailbox she gets close to for the first six months.

We have a list of vehicles that we’ve researched that not only have an exceedingly low death rate per million miles traveled, but that are available in the $5,000 to $7,000 range. Those vehicles all have seatbelts, multiple airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control as standard equipment.


Here’s an alarming statistic:

Seatbelts — which have been mandatory in every vehicle sold in the United States since 1968 — reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45 percent. They also reduce the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent.

Yet in 2015, more than 50 percent of teens who were killed in motor vehicle accidents were not wearing one.

Think about that for just a minute: If seatbelt use went to 100 percent, 525 teens could’ve been saved in 2015 alone.

There is simply no technology on earth that is as effective as a seatbelt in preventing death or catastrophic injury in an automobile, but it has to be worn to be effective.

The Bottom Line

If you’ve got a teen at home who is about to take the wheel, there is some marginal difference in overall safety whether your teen purchases a car with advanced safety technology or not.

There is a major difference in overall safety if you can convince them to wear a seatbelt 100 percent of the time.

There’s also a major safety benefit if you can get them to avoid a collision in the first place. The first step in doing so is to enroll them in a driver training program that actually teaches driving, rather than how to use hand signals properly.

We’ve evaluated programs from Kia and Ford, and we’ve also recommended a program that was borne from the tragic deaths of NHRA Top Fuel Champion Doug Herbert’s sons, but there are hundreds of others out there like them in your area.

Search for “teen driver crash avoidance” or “teen driver skid school” in your state, and you’ll likely find one. If you don’t, send an email to and I’ll find one for you. Most of them charge a fee in the $200 to $250 range, but programs sponsored by manufacturers or other entities are generally free.

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at

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