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SUV Is Wrong Car for Teenager, Insurers Warn

October 25, 2000|JEANNE WRIGHT

Insurance industry experts are warning parents that allowing inexperienced teenage drivers to take the wheel of sport-utility vehicles could increase their risk of accidents.

Though many parents assume that the bigger the vehicle, the safer their teenagers will be, "teens and SUVs are a poor match," says Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

"We know it's a bad idea because, when you look at accidents involving teens, driving error is often an issue," she says. "They over-correct, they speed, or they've got kids piled into the vehicle. All of those things can be exacerbated when teens drive SUVs."

There's a big difference between driving the family sedan and driving a larger, heavier SUV. Controlling an SUV can be particularly difficult for young, inexperienced drivers, says Aubrey Aquino, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Network of California, an insurer trade group.

"Being unfamiliar with the feel of driving an SUV can not only increase the risk of rollover, but it can also pose an increased risk to those with whom they share the road," Aquino says.

SUV advocates dismiss such arguments, saying that the larger vehicles are an ideal choice for teenagers because they are safer than smaller alternatives.

"An SUV is no different than any other vehicle," says William Brouse, president of the SUV Owners Assn. of America. "If it is driven responsibly, then the vehicle is going to be no more of a hazard than any other vehicle."

SUVs have gotten a bad rap, Brouse says, when in fact the higher and heavier vehicles give drivers a better view of the road and more protection in a crash.

Still, not everyone is persuaded.

"Yeah, your kid will be safe. What about the rest of us?" said Joseph Molina, president of JMPR, a Woodland Hills public relations agency serving the auto industry.

"They are kids. They're not supposed to be piloting a locomotive. You're dealing with the laws of physics and hormones. They're out there just having a good time . . . but kids make mistakes."

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Although there are no national or state statistics on the number of accidents involving SUVs driven by teenagers, there is anecdotal evidence that raises concerns, Rochman and Aquino note.

In April, a 16-year-old with five months of driving experience lost control of an SUV in Pasadena, killing a mother, her 4-year-old daughter and a second child.

Aquino pointed to the Pasadena accident as one of several fatal crashes in California involving teens and SUVs. The vehicle in the Pasadena accident careened onto a sidewalk, authorities said, and hit the victims as they were walking near a school carnival. The teen driver was reportedly alone in the vehicle, sober and driving the speed limit when he lost control of the SUV.

"You hear parents say they want to put their new drivers in a big vehicle that gets them up higher, gives them a better view. But the better choice is large sedan," Rochman of the Insurance Institute says. It gives them the protection, she says, but with less rollover risk.

Based on the Insurance Institute's crash tests on hundreds of cars and light trucks, the following vehicles were among those listed as safe choices for teen drivers:

Large family cars. Chevrolet Lumina (1995-2000 models), Buick LeSabre and Pontiac Bonneville (2000), Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable (1992-99).

Mid-size vehicles. Volkswagen Passat (1998-2000), Volvo 850/S70 (1995-2000), Toyota Camry (1997-2000), Subaru Legacy (2000).

Small cars. Volkswagen New Beetle (1998-2000).

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