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Depending on where you live, having access to a car may be more a necessity than a luxury for your teen. But many beginners are driving cars that don't provide great protection in crashes.

A national survey by Liberty Mutual and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) in 2008 found that about 60 percent of teens drive cars that are at least seven years old, and 27 percent of those are 12 or more years old. According to Dave Melton, director of Transportation Technical Consulting Services for Liberty Mutual, this is worrisome news: "Newer cars provide more features to help drivers avoid collisions and reduce injuries."

Similarly, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety survey of the parents of newly licensed 16- and 17-year-olds in Minnesota, North Carolina and Rhode Island, showed that although parents cited safety and reliability as factors in selecting their teenagers' vehicles, many weren't aware of important features. When asked about safety features they insist on, they most often mentioned a frontal airbag for the driver or passenger or antilock brakes, but few cited side airbags or electronic stability control. And fewer than 10 percent mentioned a vehicle's size as a factor.

When buying a used car, check the following. And use these tips to monitor the health of your car and your teen's car over time:

• Look for key safety features. Antilock brakes, stability control, traction control and all-wheel drive help prevent crashes. Air bags—the more the better—offer protection, though you might have to look hard to find the technology in used cars.

• Kick the tires. Before buying a used car, check the following:

1. Head restraints—do they adjust properly? Properly adjusted head restraints help protect against whiplash in a rear-end crash.

2. Safety belts—are there belts for the driver and all passengers? Are they frayed or worn?

3. Dashboard—when you start the car, do any of the warning signals remain on? If so, something's wrong.

4. Tires—is the tread worn out? Do you see cracks or bulges? Most experts agree that tires older than five years need to be carefully inspected to look for signs the rubber is degrading. This can be a serious problem on cars that aren't driven often—the tread may look all right, but the tire may have deteriorated.

• Do your homework. Read reports together with your teen, such as the Consumer Reports reliability survey. The 2009 Auto Survey showed that inexpensive small cars and midsize family sedans are the most reliable and generally advised against buying cars that have a high rollover risk for inexperienced drivers, such as large trucks or full-size SUVs.


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