Big cars are actually not safest for young drivers

Q: In front of my building I saw a shiny Cadillac Escalade, that on closer inspection had fender-bender dings, attempting to parallel park in a too-small space. Oh, I forgot to mention that the rear bumper has a “student driver” sticker on it. That leads me to the question, what vehicles are appropriate for student drivers?

A: I just thought of a brilliant idea. Let’s link a driver’s age with the weight of the vehicle they’re allowed to drive. You’d take your age, add two zeros, and that’s how many pounds your car can weigh. New teen drivers would be limited to 1960’s era Mini Coopers and golf carts. In your 20s you could get a compact car. You couldn’t drive a full-size pickup until your late 40s.

There might be problems with that idea, but the premise has merit. Ask the parent of a teen driver about what they want their child to drive, and many will say something big, to protect them. What’s unthought is that in a crash, bigger vehicles are bad for everyone else.

I get that we all love our kids more than strangers. But there’s something borderline vulgar about planning to increase the potential harm to others in order to reduce the consequences to your offspring when they make a driving mistake. A parent may counter, “But it might not be my child’s fault.” That’s sweet that you want to believe the best of them, and sometimes it might be true, but if we look at the data (and it’s also gross to reduce a person you love to a data point) young drivers are involved in fatal crashes at more than double the rate of the rest of us. Drivers ages 16 to 25 make up 13% of the state’s drivers, but they’re involved in almost one-third of all fatal crashes.

An Escalade weighs three tons. That’s got the potential for a lot of destruction in a crash. But it’s not just the weight. The big front end on full-size trucks and SUVs makes it harder to see pedestrians, especially short ones, like kids. That’s not where you want to put an inexperienced driver.

And then there’s the physical size. You know how you can roll over and hit the snooze button without even opening your eyes? That’s proprioception; knowing where your body is within the world around you. Extended proprioception is when you know where the tools you use are within their world, like the car you drive. Give a big car to a new driver who hasn’t had the opportunity to learn extended proprioception, and they’ll more likely hit stuff.

A good car for a new driver is well-maintained, has sufficient safety features, and is sized to their skill level. The best car for your kid is one that comes with family expectations about safe driving and good parental models. Your 15-year-old might not act like they’re listening to you, but your expectations and actions define what’s acceptable when it’s their turn to drive.

If you’re determined to put your teen into a big vehicle for their safety, buy them a bus pass; it’s a better choice than a three-ton projectile. Public transportation is, by far, the safest way to travel on our roads. The passenger vehicle death rate is over 20 times higher than for buses. Per mile traveled, the only thing safer than a bus is a commercial airline, but that’s a little impractical for getting to soccer practice.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.