We talked with Dave Milton from Liberty Mutual on teen driving and tips for buying safe used cars.

Tell us a bit about the Liberty Mutual Research Institute and teen driving.

Born out of Liberty Mutual’s commitment to help people live safer, more secure lives, the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety has helped to improve the occupational safety and health of millions of workers for more than 50 years. Through laboratory and field-based investigations, the Research Institute seeks to advance scientific, business-relevant knowledge in workplace and highway safety, and work disability.  Research findings are shared with the worldwide health and safety community through peer-reviewed journals and conference presentations.  Ultimately, these findings are used to develop recommendations, guidelines, and interventions that help reduce risk and control costs.

Liberty Mutual is also extremely involved in educating teens and parents about safe driving. Liberty Mutual and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) have jointly worked toward helping teens live safer lives since 1992, when they introduced the “Avoiding Collisions” teen driving safety program. Since 2000, Liberty Mutual and SADD have collaborated on regular teen studies that link teen attitudes, influencers and decision-making to behaviors such as driving, drinking, and drug use.

The studies have shed light on important issues affecting teens and driving. For example, Liberty Mutual and SADD found that that instant and text messaging while driving leads the list as the biggest distraction while driving for teens.

In a national survey of more than 900 teens with driver’s licenses from 26 high schools, teens rated the following behaviors or activities as “extremely” or “very” distracting:

Instant or text messaging while driving – 37 percent

The teen driver’s emotional state – 20 percent

Having several friends in the car – 19 percent

Talking on a cell phone – 14 percent

Eating or drinking – 7 percent

Having a friend in the car – 5 percent

Listening to music – 4 percent

In addition, the research recently found that more than 60 percent of teens were driving cars that were 7 years or older, with 27 percent of them actually driving cars that are older than 13 years.  Given that teens are the highest at-risk group when it comes to car accidents, this statistic has prompted the question if older cars are the safest cars for teens who are already overwhelmingly at risk.

Choosing a car for your teen to drive can be a tricky situation for any parent.  Typically the transportation need must be addressed within a practical budget, which often means giving the new teen driver a hand-me-down or purchasing an affordable used car. Safety is often a second or third consideration, but it should be an equal if not leading consideration. Does this mean used cars should be avoided? No. It means parents need to weigh carefully the safety features available and ensure that the important ones are present and working properly. Parents can look up the safety ratings of used cars here.

What would teens like to hear from their parents about driving?

Teens want to be praised for good driving behavior; not just be reprimanded for poor decisions.

Teens want parents to make an extra effort to understand their world and the peer pressures they are under – most likely, parents felt similar pressures growing up as their children do now.

Teens want to hear that parents make mistakes behind the wheel too, but that’s no excuse for breaking driving laws.

Teens want to feel unconditional love from their parents and hear that they should be comfortable being honest and coming to them with any issue and not have to hide anything for fear of being judged or harshly punished.

Unfortunately, several studies have shown that parents are often poor role models behind the wheel.  Parents speed, talk & text on cell phones, yell at other drivers and generally do many of the things they tell their new teen drivers NOT to do.  Perhaps even worse, parents have been exhibiting these behaviors for years – and, guess what – their kids have been learning by watching them probably since they’ve been old enough to see outside the car!
Most “experts” who study teen behavior, tell us that while they may not admit it, teens need and want boundaries.  They want to know what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  They want those boundaries to be firm.  And fair.

Discuss cool cars vs. safe cars?  For example, jeeps and convertibles.  Can a used car be both cool and safe?  Include the tip for parents about a racy car encouraging speeding or unsafe driving behavior?

I would say there aren’t really any ‘unsafe’ cars – as long as they are maintained properly but there are certainly cars that are safer than others.

Remember, crashes are almost always caused by unsafe behaviors!

The older the car, no matter how well its been maintained, it simply won’t have the most recent safety features.  And, given the tragic crash and fatality rates for teen drivers, they need to be in the safest vehicle their parents can put them in.

Cool cars can be safe, too.  But, cool does not necessarily mean fast.  Parents need to understand that if their teen drives a car that looks like it’s fast, their kids will drive it that way.

For new drivers, I’m not a big fan of short wheel-based, soft-topped, off road vehicles.  Especially older ones.  Their handling characteristics can be a problem for inexperienced drivers.

Keep in mind that the best of the new safety devices are intended to prevent a crash from happening in the first place.  Especially stability control.  Study after study has proven the overwhelming effectiveness of stability control.  The most recent report was by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) this past July.  Stability control will be required in all passenger vehicles by model year 2012.  But, the automakers may be moving faster than NHTSA requires.  According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) about 2 of every 3 new passenger vehicles already have stability control.  Personally, I would not own a car without stability control.

Seat belts and air bags are critically important safety features, but if there isn’t a crash, they aren’t necessary – except for one really important reason:  when the driver is wearing his or her seat belt, they are kept securely behind the steering wheel and above the pedals.  Right where they need to be to safely control the vehicle and, perhaps, avoid a crash.  That’s all the more reason for us all to wear our seat belt – that includes everyone in the car.  No seat belt – no ride.

What can parents do to make their hand-me-down car safer?  What are the worst types of cars to pass on to teens?

There are a number of things a parent can do to strike the balance between affordability and safety when buying a used car for their teen.

Parents should check the conditions of the seat belts, head restraints and tires. Properly adjusted head restraints help protect against whiplash in the event of a rear-end crash. Look carefully at seat belts to ensure they are not frayed, cut, or worn excessively. Make sure there are working safety belts for all driver and passenger positions.

Check the tires. Tires must have adequate tread life left in them. Bring a tire gauge when hunting for a used car. Also, be careful of “aged” tires – most experts agree tires that are older than five years need to be carefully inspected to look for signs the rubber is degrading. This can be a particularly serious problem on cars that are not driven many miles per year – the tread may appear good, but the tire has deteriorated to the point where it is dangerous.

The worst types of cars to pass on to teens are cars that receive poor safety scores. There are a number of Web sites, including http://www.libertymutual.com/lm/carsafetyscore, where you can research the safety ratings a car has received. In the past 15 years, at least four new important safety features have become standard in newer car models, including advance frontal airbags, side air bags, tire pressure monitoring systems, and stability

What are the pros and cons safety wise about getting a teen a new car?

The pro’s of getting a teen a new car is that you’ll be able to purchase the vehicle with the newest safety features available.  Remember, some of these features may be optional.  As I said earlier, I consider stability control to be a “must have” feature.  And, since stability control depends upon the computer and wheel sensors that operate ABS, the car will have that feature, too.  Head and side-curtain airbags are also very important, in addition to the “standard” driver and passenger side airbags.

By the way – do you and your teen know how to use ABS?  What it feels like?  And, what it is intended to do?  ABS helps the driver maintain control of the vehicle in an emergency situation – typically a panic stop.  Because the wheels aren’t sliding across the pavement, i.e., skidding, the driver still has steering control.  ABS won’t necessarily stop the vehicle any faster.  In a very safe place like a large parking lot, with no obstructions near by, and wearing your seat belts, drive about 20 or 25 miles per hour and slam on the brakes.  Turn the wheel and pretend to steer around an imaginary obstruction.  You won’t hurt the car and you will, indeed, feel and hear your ABS activate.

Keep in mind that newer cars will typically get better fuel mileage, lower emissions, and come with a warranty.

The con’s?  Well, newer cars cost more to repair and may be more likely to be stolen.  There’s an old theory, frequently disproved, that “safer” cars lead to more unsafe behaviors.  Not true.  There’s no credible evidence that people compensate for increased safety by behaving more unsafely.

In the safety profession, we accept without reservation that accidents and crashes are far, far more often caused by driver behavior or failure to act than by the equipment.  Unfortunately, we know that teens, because of inexperience or their inability to understand the risks they take while driving, often make bad, really bad, decisions.

Novice teen drivers often don’t get it… they simply don’t have the experience they need to develop for understanding the driving environment around them.

New drivers think everyone around them will do what they expect them to do.  The other drivers will stop at stop signs or lights, use their turn signal, never cut them off, never slam on their brakes, never be distracted, etc.  It takes a few years of driving to realize that safe drivers are always expecting the unexpected – and prepared to react to bad decisions made by other drivers.

What cars/features lower the insurance rate the most for teens?

Vehicles with safety features such as airbags and anti-lock braking systems will result in lower premiums for teens, as well as all other drivers.  Generally speaking the higher the cost to repair or replace a vehicle the more expensive it is to insure.  Therefore, if teens purchase lower value vehicles, they will have to pay less in premium, and this holds true for drivers of all ages.

What are your top 5 tips to teens thinking about buying their first car?

1) Strike a balance between “coolness,” affordability and safety.  It doesn’t mean used cars should be avoided, it means safety needs to be put at the same level as price.  It’s almost a certainty that a new teen driver is going to have a crash – get a car that will help you avoid it and, if one occurs, help you and your friends survive it.

2) Look up the car safety score. There are a number of Web sites, including http://www.libertymutual.com/lm/carsafetyscore, where you can research the safety ratings a car has received.

3) Avoid older cars that aren’t equipped with up-to-date safety features – particularly ABS and airbags.

4) Have a professional mechanic you trust check out whatever car you’re considering – no matter how old it is.

5) Finally, remember that none of us can overcome the laws of physics.  No matter how safe your car is, how new it is, if you drive beyond your ability to control the car or its ability to protect you, the results can be catastrophic.  Anyone can drive really, really fast in a straight line – it’s when we have to make a tight curve or swerve to avoid something, that we get in serious trouble.  Driving fast is easy – driving safely takes brains.

Your objective when you drive should be to get where you’re going without anyone else on the road even remembering you were there.  That’s a safe driver!

More About Liberty Mutual

Not only does Liberty Mutual want to educate parents and teens of dangers, but the company is also active in providing solutions for families to address these issues. Available to families is a Guidelines to Good Family Communications.

The teen research has repeatedly found that open, honest communication between parents and teens is the most important element in healthy teen decision-making. Young people who spend time with their parents, talk with them regularly, and have a close relationship with them are less likely to drink or use drugs, and are more likely to practice safer driving habits.

In addition, Liberty Mutual partnered with RADD, the entertainment industry’s voice for road safety, to create a teen safe driving kit, The Road Ahead: Stay Safe at the Wheel, which includes a family discussion guide, safe driving pledge, and video.  On the video, teens talk candidly about life behind the wheel — speeding, drinking, drug use, seat belt use, distractions, and more.  Eye-opening excerpts from the HBO Family documentary Smashed: Toxic Tales of Teens and Alcohol are also included, with teen’s reactions and lessons learned.  For a free copy, parents and teens can call toll-free 1-800-4-LIBERTY or contact a local Liberty Mutual office.