The right car for the right teenager
Monday, February 06, 2017
A few weeks ago, I was bantering with my cab driver (no Uber here) about cars and Porsches and my somewhat nostalgia-driven 944 habit, when he asked me what car I would recommend he get for his teenaged child.
Now, I’ve made it a habit not to recommend specific makes and models unless we are talking about hobby cars (like Porsches), so what I did offer was my standard initial response of "Why do you want to give them a car?" along with my opinions about what his considerations and concerns should be.
Do they like to drive? Why would you contemplate giving your teenager a car, any car, if they aren’t even comfortable with driving in the first place? Simply monitoring their performance from the right seat should give you some indication of their comfort and anxiety levels while behind the wheel.
If they aren’t relaxed, if they aren’t able to concentrate, don’t just sluff it off. Confidence behind the wheel takes time, more time for some and a lot more time for others.
Help them at their own pace with calm and patience. No yelling, no panicking, just constructive and helpful critiques.
Conversely, is your teen driver overconfident, always in a hurry, easily distracted, careless, or inattentive? Be judgmental, very judgmental. Don’t turn them loose on the roads if you don’t think they are responsible enough, mature enough, or mentally prepared enough for the responsibilities and demands of operating a car.
I’m always disappointed by the number of parents I know whose primary reason for giving their teen a car is so that they (the parent) don't have to continue providing that teen and/or their younger siblings with transportation services. Wrong, don't let or make them drive solo if they aren’t ready for it and that judgment by the way rests on you regardless of whether or not they have their license.
Is it that much of an inconvenience to make sure they get safely to and from the activities you probably encouraged them to participate in?
Causation, Prevention, and Protection are the three things you need to be considering. The protection portion of this triumvirate can be found in the crashworthiness and occupant protection requirements that every vehicle sold by OEMs in the U.S. domestic market must meet.
An enormous amount of time, effort, and money is spent on designing and developing collision energy management and safety restraint systems for the modern car. But other than the seat belts, the presence and ultimate performance of these systems and features remain essentially invisible to the driver.
In fact, our ultimate goal is to avoid ever having to put the performance and capability of those systems to the test. Prevention, or perhaps more accurately intervention, is one of the keys to achieving that goal.
It is well-documented and demonstrated driver aids such as ABS and stability controls provide preventative intervention to help drivers avoid or at least mitigate the severity of a potential loss of vehicle control. These systems are very robust and very effective, but they do have performance limits and will not necessarily overcome input factors such as poor judgement, driver distraction, bad visibility, or slipshod maintenance such as worn out brakes, tires, and wiper blades.
That brings us to Causation. According to the NHTSA (published February 2015), the critical reason or causation for 94 percent of crashes can be assigned to the driver.
Statistics from the NHTSA's Crash Stats.
Setting aside the obvious need for seat time, experience, and professional driver training (high school driver’s education is not enough training to be proficient), let’s talk about vehicle selection in terms of the human machine interface (HMI).
For our teenaged driver, this means selecting a vehicle that enables increased focus and concentration while reducing workload, distractions, and stress while driving.
Are they comfortable driving the car?
Bigger is not necessarily safer if they aren’t comfortable or confident driving that really clean used Cayenne SUV you found for them. Many drivers, like my 16-year-old son and me, prefer to drive smaller vehicles.
My son has driven full-size trucks, big SUV’s, sedans, and the occasional racing kart, but he prefers my small five-door hatch with a manual transmission. (He is 6’2” and 200+ pounds, so the size of the boy does not necessarily correlate to size of the vehicle.)
Broaden their experience and let them develop their own preferences by exposing them to a variety of vehicle types and sizes prior to and even after getting their license.
Are they comfortable in the car?
How comfortable are they with their outward vision in all directions once they have the seat positioned? Are the A-pillars interfering with their line of sight of when checking for cross traffic?
Can they comfortably reach and operate all of the controls when positioned with their back against the seat? This includes floor-mounted shifters. You should not have to lean forward in the seat to operate the controls.
Are they comfortable with the steering and braking feel and efforts? The more comfortable they are, the better their concentration and focus will be. Take your time to find the right fit.
Avoid touchscreens and complicated multi-functional digital displays. Yes, it’s tough nowadays, but it can be accomplished. Look for simple touch-intuitive controls for systems such as the HVAC.
The HVAC slider controls on my early 944s are the antithesis of what I consider to be intuitive. Three simple giant knobs are good, and digital dual-zone controls with lots of buttons and electronic displays are not.
Anything that requires the driver to repeatedly divert their gaze from the road ahead increases the risk of a collision, so the simpler the better. Also, keep in mind that even "hands-free" phone calls are a demonstrable driver distraction. Tell them all calls should wait until they get where they are going.
Having them drive a manual transmission is my personal recommendation, but I’ll admit I’m only batting .500 with my own children. Two of them prefer it, two of them don’t, but all of them know how to do it.
Even if your teenager doesn’t warm up to the idea of driving a stick on a daily basis, at least make sure they DO learn how to drive one. Driving a manual transmission (that means the kind with three pedals!) will keep their limbs, eyes, and concentration engaged in the task of driving.
It’s the car equivalent of them learning how to play an instrument. It’s good for their brains and their confidence behind the wheel.
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