Teen Car Safety Runs Into Political Correctness

When I turned 18, my father gave me the keys to our old family car, a dark red 1985 Buick Riviera. It was big, slow to accelerate, and drove like an army tank. My friends got a good laugh seeing me cruising around in the Riv’. Dad knew it was risky to let me drive as a teenager, but he must have figured my risk would be reduced in such a huge car.

Now Consumer Reports says he was wrong. In a June 9 CNNMoney article, Consumer Reports spokesman Robert Gentile recommends that parents purchase small or midsize cars for teenagers. Large cars, in his opinion, are too bulky for teenagers. In Mr. Gentile’s words, "they are generally more difficult to handle."

Consumer Reports is, for many people, the top source for objective car-buying advice. But Mr. Gentile’s recommendation is simply wrong. As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) points out in its brochure, "Buying a Safer Car," “the first crashworthiness attributes to consider are vehicle size and weight. Small, light vehicles generally offer less protection than larger, heavier ones. There’s less structure to absorb the energy of the crash, so deaths and injuries are more likely to occur. This is true in both single- and multiple-vehicle crashes.” IIHS data shows that the smallest cars have a death rate that’s more than twice as great as that of the largest cars.

Mr. Gentile claims that small cars are more maneuverable, and he implies that this makes up for their reduced crashworthiness. If that’s true, then it should be reflected in the IIHS data, which is based on the road experience of millions of drivers. It isn’t.

In fact, as long ago as 1972 the claim of small car maneuverability was debunked in a Ralph Nader Study Group book, "Small on Safety: the Designed-in Dangers of the Volkswagen": “Small size is supposed to have one compensating advantage: according to a prevailing myth, cars like the Beetle are less likely to become involved in accidents, because they are more maneuverable than large cars. This myth is not supported by the facts.”

Could it be that teenagers form a special subgroup for which maneuverability is more important than it is for anyone else? The IIHS experts don’t think so. “We don’t recommend small cars for teens,” said spokesman Russ Rader in a phone interview. “Small cars are inherently less protective in crashes than large vehicles because of their size and weight.” Rather, says Mr. Rader, consider getting your teen a mid- to large-size newer car that has earned good crash-test ratings. As he told parents in a 2001 interview for, "Surround them with as much car as you can afford. Since teens have a tendency to speed, you want a well-engineered car with crumple and crush space.”

IIHS senior vice president for research Susan Fergusson took the same view in a 2004 interview. Commenting on the small, old hand-me-down cars that teens often end up driving, she stated, “These vehicles typically provide inferior crash protection. Yet they’re being driven by the youngest drivers, who are the most crash prone.”

In the words of Phil Berardelli, author of "Safe Young Drivers," “parents should think big. Resist the thought that a smaller car will be easier for a teen to handle and give him more maneuverability to avoid an accident.”

Of course, size and weight aren’t the only safety considerations. Design and equipment can make huge differences as well, and features such as seatbelts, air bags and electronic stability control can be lifesavers.

So what’s behind Consumer Reports’ attitude? Is it being swayed by the political incorrectness of large cars? If that’s true, it’s a darn shame. We can all make our own decisions about a car’s political correctness, but judging safety and reliability requires expertise of the sort that we expect to find at Consumer Reports.

When I find time to travel home to Texas, I still drive the old ‘85 Buick. Sometimes I’ll see old friends. They’ll laugh, and ask one more time how the old Riv’ is handling the road. I doubt my father was worried about being politically correct when he gave it me. No matter. I was safe, and that was his top priority.

I wish I could say the same about Consumer Reports.