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Is Your Teen Safe Behind The Wheel?

Many experts agree that SUVs are not a wise

Mar 27, 2005 | Newsday

When it came time for Jessica Wolfert's parents to buy her a car, there was no doubt that it would be a sport utility vehicle.

With the exception of the Lincoln LS that the 17-year-old Long Island, N.Y., resident drove when she first began learning, her family had always owned SUVs. They spent each Saturday afternoon over two months at various dealerships before Jessica decided on a 2-year-old white Jeep Liberty last May.

"They didn't want me in a car," says Jessica, a senior at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip. "They thought a Jeep was safer."

Jessica's father, Bob Wolfert, 50, says he felt more comfortable with his daughter in an SUV, especially for the 30-minute drive she has to school each morning and in bad weather.

With their size, indestructible look and four-wheel drive systems, SUVs seem to be a good first-car choice for parents concerned with safety. Teens are attracted to the rugged appearance of some models or feel comfortable sitting higher up while driving on the highway.

But evidence has been mounting that SUVs, while seemingly ubiquitous on the roads, may not be as safe as people once thought. With its high center of gravity, an SUV is three times as likely to roll over in an accident than a regular car, and its size makes split-second maneuvers much more difficult.

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute recently studied single-vehicle crashes involving SUVs. The results indicated that when the SUV drivers were younger than 25, the vehicles rolled over 37 percent of the time.

Government officials are starting to take notice. A $27-million ad campaign recently launched in all 50 states alerts drivers, specifically men ages 18 to 34, to the risk of rollovers in SUVs that come with speeding, swerving and abrupt maneuvers. The campaign is being funded by a 2002 settlement with the Ford Motor Co., after lawsuits alleged it had misled consumers on how to drive, load and maintain Ford Explorers.

SUVs might not even be the most desirable set of wheels for some teens. According to a November survey by TNS Automotive, a Greenwich, Conn.-based market research firm, only 8 percent of those between 16 and 19 favor SUVs, while 37 percent like sedans, such as the BMW 3-series, and 33 percent like coupes, such as the Honda Civic.

So how should a parent navigate the tricky experience of buying a car they can feel confident in?

If safety is a primary concern, it's best to review government crash records and go from there, says Mike Hudson, a consumer advice editor for, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based Web site with information for car buyers. If a parent is set on an SUV, some of the newer models are designed more like regular cars, Hudson says. Vehicles such as the Ford Escape, a more environmentally friendly gas-electric hybrid, or the Honda CRV, are much smaller and lower to the ground than a standard SUV, such as a Ford Explorer, which is built around the basic framework of a truck.

An April 2004 article by Consumer Reports noted that sedans were the best cars for teen drivers because they offer better handling in emergency situations, which helps avoid crashes. At the top of the list were the Honda Accord and the Volkswagen Passat.

Consumer Reports did recommend four small car-based SUVs, including the Subaru Forester and the Ford Escape, because they have a lower risk of rollover and better emergency handling.

Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports, who worked on the study, says they looked at SUVs because some parents feel safe with that choice and want a vehicle that will allow their children to bring their things back and forth to college.

But "if you don't need all-wheel drive and you don't need to haul stuff, there's nothing wrong with driving a good family sedan,"Shenhar says.

One lawyer who specializes in product liability cases, says he has handled numerous suits against SUV manufacturers that involve vehicle instability and handling problems. Some involved new drivers, he says.

While he says he wouldn't recommend an SUV for an experienced driver, let alone someone who recently got a license, he says some newer models of popular SUVs, including the Ford Explorer and Cadillac Escalade, are available with electronic stability control, a system designed to correct a vehicle if it begins to slide or spin.

Whatever vehicle, parents should involve children in the process of buying it, says Michael Riera, author of Uncommon Sense for Parents With Teenagers.

He suggests that children do the research on various makes and models they are interested in. They could also look for information on the dangers that teen drivers face. "The bottom line is the parents have to okay it," Riera says.

Hudson says he thinks SUVs require a different way of handling than a regular sedan. But while it may be easier for adults to adapt, teens may not be able to take the same control if they get into an accident, which they are more apt to do.

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