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More on Cars and Kids: Throwing Away the Key

My first car was a boat of an automobile: a 1975 Caprice Classic convertible that could seat about 10 high school kids on its ratty vinyl bench seats. The radio didn't work, and the top of the mammoth gas tank leaked, so I could only put half a tank of gas in at a time. My father had bought it used for a song as a kind of summer plaything, and when I hit the magic age of 16 and a half, it became my everyday car, taking me to and from school and to the occasional Friday night movie or ice-cream run.

Driving along narrow farm roads in a hulking late-model car without shoulder belts could be nerve-wracking, but it was otherwise a relatively safe car: it was too big to move very fast, and it was easy to see (and hear) coming. I managed to graduate from high school without adding so much as a dent. And the car is still around today, still fulfilling its role as a summer plaything. The radio still doesn't work.

Turns out that by handing over the keys, my parents were rolling the dice. Last week, we discussed a finding that children of strict parents had better driving records. A second study in the same medical journal found that one in four kids with their own car (or limitless access to one) had been in an accident. Compare that with kids who had to ask for the keys, only one in 10 of whom ended up in an accident. Researchers said that the difference didn't have to do with the hours behind the wheel, but rather theorized that the act of having to ask for permission to use the car gave parents more oversight into the "when" and "where" of their teen drivers, nipping risky behavior in the bud.

I'm still a few years away from handing over the keys to my kids. Still, I had long assumed that, presuming I end up with a responsible teen, giving her her own car, for convenience. (What's today's equivalent of a '75 Chevy, anyway?) Now I'm thinking through the advice of the researchers: guard the keys more closely for the first year or so of their driving life. If that's going to halve the crash risk, that outweighs "convenience."

What are you planning to do (or what have you done) when your teen finally gets that license? Give your teen his/her own wheels, or hold back? (Alternatively, I love hearing first-car stories. Let 'em rip in the comments.)

By Brian Reid |  October 7, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Safety , Teens
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I bought my first car when I was 18 and a freshman in college- it was a 1984 oldsmobile regency, known as the Queen Mary. Drove it for 8 years until it got totalled in an ice storm (knew I should have stayed home from work that day).

I'm not sure exactly what I'll do with the kids and cars, but I do know that they will be expected to pay most (if not all) of the purchase price when they do get them. And they will be responsable for paying their own insurance. I also think it's a good idea to limit the number of people they can drive for the first year or two- I've read a number of places (and seen in my own experience) that teenagers are much more likely to drive wrecklessly when they have a carfull of noisy friends.

Posted by: floof | October 7, 2009 7:28 AM | Report abuse

My first car was a 1980 oldsmobile. It wasn't really 'mine' though. My parents each had a car, and when my dad started his own company, the company leased him a car, so then we had three cars. One sister had moved out and one sister was in college.
So there were three cars, three people in the house. And my mom made me go through the motions of asking - every night - if I could take the car to school the next day. I so remember one evening when my mom must not have been home, and I asked my dad. Well, he said no. So the next day, I figured I could sleep in a few minutes (if I drove, I had to get there early as there was extremely limited parking near the school, so to ensure a spot, I got there really early). So my dad nudged me and said: you've got to get up. I said, but you said I couldn't take the car. And he laughed and told me he was joking. I said: well, now I can't go, cause it's too late - you have to drive me. That was the last time he joked about it.

DH and I have argued since the kids were infants. Well,not so much argued as stated our opinions. Mine is that if the kid wants a car, well, they can get one themselves. DH thinks we should get hte kids cars so they can drive themselves around. We pretty much have shown that we will be in an urban ish area - somewhere where one can take buses, etc, if need be (or walk/bike). So my thought is that the kids wouldn't need cars if they can get around (yes, one of my theories is that parents are so willing to give their kids cars and keys so that they won't have to drive them around that they don't care so much about the safety of the kid - if we had more options of mass transit around, then fewer teens would kill themselves every year behind the wheel).

So, I will try to hold off as much as possible. PLUS - who the heck can afford an extra car anyway?

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 7, 2009 7:55 AM | Report abuse

By the time my oldest got his license, he was almost 18, I was sooo ready for another driver.

It wasn't hard to hand over the keys because he could drive himself to his practices and activities AND drive his brother.

Yes, they both have had accidents. Yes, my auto insurance bill approaches my health insurance bill. Remembering our own experiences in tinny VW bugs we set them out in a Camry-sized car -anti-lock breaks and airbags.

Cars for teens are costly and I'm sure many families aren't as liberal with the car as we are. I commute on public transit so "my" car immediately because the kid car. But it was with my blessing! Kids who could drive themselves and their sibs places was a huge improvement in my life -- and my ability to hold onto a good job that would pay the upcoming tuition bills.

Posted by: RedBird27 | October 7, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

I grew up in rural upstate New York, but by the time I hit 16, I wasn't champing at the bit to have my own car. My parents were great about schlepping me around - it probably helped that I am an only child, my "primary driver", my dad, was a teacher (so similar hours to mine), and we lived within walking distance of the local school, site of most of my activities. Also, my parents didn't let me hold a job during the school year. But by the time I was 17, it was helpful to have a third driver in the family, so I learned. On a two-seater, stick shift Honda CRX coupe. That was a fun little car to drive, although my usual ride was a tank-like 1988 Ford Taurus. Since I never had my own car, I probably was a little more careful than some of my peers, but frankly, not much. I do know it kept me from even touching alcohol and then driving, because I knew that if anything happened, my parents would have killed me (I said no to drinks on more than one occasion when I would have been just as happy to say yes).

Posted by: northgs | October 7, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I got my first car after I was out of college and had a job. It was a 1971 Super Beetle and had great traction on snowy Wisconsin roads. My daughter turns 13 next week and has no interest in driving. She asked me if she had to learn to drive. We live in metro Atlanta and she cringes every time we get on the perimeter (I-285).

Posted by: anne23 | October 7, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

My first car was a AMC Hornet maybe 1972? I am not sure of the exact year but it was OLD at the point it was new to me. We called it the Death Trap. We had problems with brake lines flexing which took a long time to figure out in order to fix it so the car sometimes simply didn't stop. Caused one minor fender bender and made me super cautious! Near the end of its life we found out it had a hole in the floor boards and long drives (over 45min) resulted in a build-up of carbon monoxide. Needless to say, I didn't take long drives in it.

I laugh now but it probably shouldn't have been on the road at the time. That is the difference between then vs now and urban vs rural I guess.

I won't have to worry about my kids and cars thank goodness because they always want you to go FASTER! Darn that speed limit and red lights!

Posted by: Billie_R | October 7, 2009 8:37 AM | Report abuse

atlmom1234: I completely disagree that parents who get a car for a teen driver don't care about their safety. If the teenager is already responsible, then it's a great way to encourage independence while setting limits, such as a curfew, number of people in the car, and I always had to pay for my own gas money and have a summer job.

I got my license at 16 and my first car was an 8-year old Ford Tempo, which my dad gladly handed over so he could buy a used pickup truck to haul all his garden stuff. I'm proud to say that the only accident I have ever had was sliding on black ice into a tree at 15mph, which happened when I was 19 and in college.

Posted by: gypsyrom1 | October 7, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Though I saved up enough paper route money to buy my own car and pay for insurance at age 16, I elected not to get my license until after 18. I had a very poor relationship with the units and the last thing I wanted was to have yet another item on the list for my parents to jerk me around with. (a driver's license can be legally yanked at anytime for any reason from an underage driver by request of the parents) I saw the hoops they made their favorite child (Older brother) jump through so he could drive and I didn't want any part of it.

However, After I turned 18, I suckered my dad into taking me to a motorcycle rider's safety course at the local community college. He decided to take the class too. After the course was over, (he beat me on the written exam by a point, I beat him on the skills part by 2), we both bought motorcycles and would occasionally take the cycles for a spin on the open road together when the weather was good.

So, for the better part of my senior year I came and went as I pleased. I ended up wrecking the bike about a half dozen times, but never due to wrecklessness. (if that makes any sense) Oh yeah as for the topic, my first *CAR* car, was one of those Volkswagon party vans. I did get a ticket, once, clocked by Maryland cops at72 in a 55, which I was very proud of. The van was 13 years old, and to get it going that fast, I had to floor it driving downhill.

As for my daughter, we bought a 2nd car, a Ford Focus, that we share with her and she drives with permission, kinda sorta. She gives us $150 a month for her share of the insurance and pays for gas. Before she turned 18, she asked before using the car. Now that she's legal, she more or less tells us where she is going and lets us know when she expects to return, but it's more of a courtesy thing than a permission issue. Heck, my wife and I do the same thing, we just let the other family members know what we are doing and where we are going upon leaving the house. BTW: my daughter rides a bicycle and takes the bus to classes and to work at the university nearby, it saves her $200 for the parking permit and keeps her in good shape.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 7, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Agree with gypsyrom1-I was also given a car when I was 16 and my parents cared a great deal about my safety and did monitor where I was allowed to drive at first. Also, like gypsy the only accident I had as a teenager was on black ice.

Posted by: sunflower571 | October 7, 2009 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Datsun B210 - had to be at least 10 years old when my parents handed me the keys in 1987.

death trap.

we'll get the kid a car at some point, but it will be a safe one. for us, it's not worth saving $5k to let her drive a risky auto.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | October 7, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

There is a lot of responsibility that needs to be taught when a young driver is given a car. Not just "don't drink and drive" but check the oil, know how to change a flat tire, keep the car clean, no loud music or distractions - I see kids racing in and out of parking lots with loud music and too many kids in the car all the time and it scares me. A neighbor kid raced up the street at 30 mph (15 zone) with the radio blasting when the elementary school bus was loadingand I had to practically jump in front of his car for him to stop. Needless to say his parents found out later that night and I didn't see him driving for 2 weeks.

How will I feel about giving keys to my daughter in 5 years? We'll see, as of now she is a very responsible kid - so let's hope it stays that way. As for giving her a car of her own, HA! Dream on.

When we were growing up my dad had a 1967 Ford Mustang Convertible. The way I used to peel around in that thing with the top down and a load of friends makes my already curly hair curl even more. I was hell on wheels and quite frankly, should not even be here. I had to ask to drive the mustang and I was periodically denied due to frequent infractions, but it didn't stop me from pushing the envelope on speed and turns when I did get it. When I graduated from HS I bought a 1980 Toyota Celica that lasted me through college. I did not abuse that car like the Mustang and it was because I paid for it and I had to take care of it, plus I grew up a lot after HS and generally didn't act like a bonehead. But man, how I would love to get in the convertible again and push it to the limit!

Posted by: cheekymonkey | October 7, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

With a house full of kids and non-driving grandparents, my parents could not wait for me to be old enough to help with the driving chores. I do not doubt however that the privilege would have been yanked if I had not kept my grades up and stayed out of trouble.

I took my driver's test while it was snowing. Anyone else?

Posted by: ishgebibble | October 7, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

1984 light blue Dodge Aries K (don't be jealous).

However much I appreciate State Farm letting me know about their statistics, I'll do whatever I think is right for me to do with my kid, based on my judgement of his level of responsibility.

Posted by: 06902 | October 7, 2009 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Here's your Metro card, kid. Go nuts.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | October 7, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Ah, my 1967 Plymouth Valiant Signet. Got it when I came home from Vietnam. Bought it with 75,000 miles on it. No power steering, no power brakes, windows or door locks. And 6/60 air conditioning. (for you young folks, that is 6 windows down at 60 miles per hour!) Proposed to Frieda in it. Frieda drove it once. She said "This doesn't drive like my daddy's Mercedes!"

As far as cars for the kids, we have been thru 3 teenage drivers and 3 totaled cars. In fact, one of the daughters killed the original Boobiemobile. I am so glad my kids are grown up now!

Posted by: Fred | October 7, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

My parents forbade me to drive on the interstate highways for the first year or so of my driving, thinking that that environment might be too high-pressure for a new driver.

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 7, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

If we can afford it, I'm going to get my daughter a car when she is a teenager.

I'll have to see how her personality turns out, but looking back at my own life, even though I was hardly a model of good behavior- I was a safer driver than most of my friends. I was absolutely a safer driver than the boys I dated in high school. I worry about my DD being stuck in any number of scary situations because she's got to depend on some other kid for a ride.

Posted by: michelleg1 | October 7, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

My first car was a 1975 Ford Pinto hatchback, light blue (Canadian paint color 3Q), with the "unleaded fuel only" block knocked out so you could put leaded fuel into it. Bought it my sophomore year in college with 45,000 miles on it. Traded it in 5 years later after I got my first "real" job after grad school, with 143,000 miles on it.

Oldest DD got 'her' first car her Senior year in high school - I finally bought a new car for myself and so she got the 1991 Ford Escort. Fifteen years old; 265,000 miles; and she had to learn to drive the manual transmission. She took amazing care of it and literally cried for days when it broke down for good a year later.

We have five drivers, and we now have four cars (2006 Corolla, 2003 Sienna, 2000 Passat wagon and 1996 Cavalier). Yes, my annual car insurance bill makes DS' college tuition bill look cheap!

States have their own limitations on new drivers, and Maryland just toughened theirs (although still not as strict as NC, where my brother's daughters drive). In MD, no driving more than one friend at a time for the first five months you have a license, unless a parent's in the car with you. Cuts down on the "car full of teens" scenario somebody mentioned. We added our own rules, as well - curfews; we have to know where you are; etc.

(BTW, the significance of the Pinto being made in Canada was that when the paint started chipping, you couldn't get the matching color paint! It was a Canadian color; not a US color, and the Louisiana Ford dealers couldn't even get it. They told me that the best solution was to find somebody who was going to Canada and have them buy me a few spray cans of the stuff. I just drove around with mismatched paint.)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 7, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

ArmyBrat must like to type.

Posted by: jezebel3 | October 7, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

"This doesn't drive like my daddy's Mercedes!"

Hahaha! There's a moral in there somewhere, like, give your daughter a classy car to drive and she'll marry a classy husband. (even though he drives a POS at proposal time)

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | October 7, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Buy the boys their own car? HAH! No way. They had to drive one of ours, and only then if we allowed it. Yes, once they passed our conditions after they got their licenses (1000 miles with us in the car before they took it on their own) they could drive to school (17 miles each way) and occasionally for social events. They did fine. Plus, we had older, heaver, tank-like cars that, while not equipped with today's safety features, were boats that could not be treated like race cars because of weight and aerodynamic limitations.

They both bought their first vehicles with their own money--and arranged for their own financing--and treated the vehicles well as a result. Some of their friends had parents who gave them new cars upon reaching driving age and who replaced them each time they got damaged. Those kids were not safe drivers, and they knew that their parents would replace anything they damaged. Not my way of parenting, but not unusual these days either.


Posted by: lsturt | October 7, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

My mom made me get my license at 17, when she got sick and tired of picking me up at midnight after play rehearsals, but also didn't want me walking home afterwards. Everything I needed was within walking/biking distance, so I wasn't in any rush. At 15 1/2 I was desperate for a car at 16. But then I did the math and realized I'd have to drop all my extracurriculars to earn enough $$ to pay for the cost of the car, gas, insurance, etc. Suddenly, my bike seemed a lot more appealing.

First car was a 1980 black rabbit diesel with 80K miles on it -- my mom gave me hers as an early college graduation present when I lived off-campus my senior year. The thing leaked fuel, leaked oil, leaked antifreeze, and had an alternator that was going out. I loved it -- even when it cost me $600 in repairs just to make it through a Minnesota winter! Favorite memory was driving home to MD after running into the Dean's truck: I have a great picture of me heading off, all my worldly possessions piled in the back, with the front grill peeping through the side window, and the hood strapped down with duct tape (which I had to cut away every few hours to add another quart of oil).

DD likely will not get a car right away; no need, because we live in the same walkable neighborhood, and as of now, she doesn't seem likely to be a good risk (hyper, impulsive, distractable, etc.). But who knows? We might not even be here then. But in any event, we will have some significant parental oversight when we get to that point. When it is time for her to have her own car, I may do what my mom did and give her my current car (if it lasts that long) as a graduation present or something. Though I may part with family tradition and have the mechanic check it out and fix it up first. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | October 7, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

I grew up in NJ, where, even 20 years ago, you had to be 17 to get a driver's license. My parents never bought me a car, although I was allowed to use my dad's car if he was home. Somehow, I survived not having my own car. Actually, out of all my friends in HS, 2 got "hand-me-down cars" from their parents, 1 worked and bought her own, and everyone else rode the bus to school (I know, the horrors!). Also - my dad had his own version of the driving test before you were allowed to take the car out alone. So I got my license whatever day my 17th birthday was, and that weekend, dad made me drive into Manhattan to my grandmother's apartment, where we needed to pick something up. Then across town to the hospital she was in at the time, then home. He figured if I could handle driving through Manahattan, I could handle driving locally (which still meant all the major interstates, since we were in the NYC suburbs, and that was how you got to friends' homes).

Will I buy my kid a car? Don't know. She's only 6 months old. If I do, she will definitely have some of the financial responsibility, and a LOT of rules. No matter how good a kid she is.

Posted by: JHBVA | October 7, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

My first car was a 56 VW bug - three years older than me - that my mother had bought new about a year before she met dad. We moved to a *really* rural home when I was nine, and my dad looked around and realized that the nearest neighbor was a half mile away, and the phone was a flakey party-line deal that wasn't reliable at all. (It was supposed to be shared among four homes, but we only had that one half-mile-away neighbor on the same phone line as us, because the next closest homes were too far away to share the same phone line.)

So, because of the serious isolation of where we were living, I learned to drive at age 9, and my siblings learned that same summer at ages 7, 6, and 4. Yes, my big, healthy 4-y-o brother could see over the dashboard of the VW, and could reach the pedals and shift gears when the seat was adjusted all the way forward. He and my 6-y-o sister weren't supposed to drive by themselves - they were supposed to have a parent in the car with them, or me, or the 7-y-o sister.

Interesting times. Never drove on a paved road until after I had my learner's permit.

For older son (who's still not licensed or interested in driving at age 17), I got our 88 Celica a new (used) engine, and other work done to make it safely drivable again, over two years ago at the same time I signed him up for driver training classes.

Maybe younger son, age 12, will get the Celica in another four years. He's very interested in cars and in driving. I had thought I might give him the 67 Plymouth Fury I inherited when Grandma died. I turned over 64k miles on it when I was driving it home to CA from her funeral in ID. It's parked on my parents' property, and gets started up once or twice a year.

Posted by: SueMc | October 7, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

My first car was a 1979 Chevy Malibu station wagon, aptly nicknamed the "Beast" (because it was one in size as well as attitude), that I "inherited" from my mom when she upgraded to a 1991 wagon that could handle her commute to her teaching job. It had a tight choke, so starting it involved jamming a stick in there to let the fuel mix with the air properly until it got going, but it was well worth it. I loved being able to help out by running errands for my parents and driving myself to my part-time job. I had to learn to fix up and maintain a car before I could learn to drive one, and to this day I still prefer to fix problems with a car myself, if possible, rather than spend a ton of money for a mechanic to do it.

I drove the Beast until my junior year in college when my parents surprised me with a 1995 Geo Prizm for an early 21st birthday present (the college was too far away from the Metro stations for me to conveniently get home on my own, and driving the Beast for such long distances on a regular basis was looking like a not very good idea!). My sister inherited the Beast when she got her license, and she renamed it "Mir." (By this time, it was like the space station-had everything in the world going wrong with it, yet somehow continued to function-barely!) Mir later got donated to the Salvation Army.

We no longer have the Prizm, lasted through two road trips to South Carolina, two blizzards (yes, I made it to work during the blizzard of 96 in that thing!), and even a wreck (T-bone collision I was in back in 1996-fortunately, the frame was still in good shape, so the rebuild was a snap!) before my husband totaled it in another accident in 2006. The combination of Tropical Storm Ernesto, a bad curve on a local road that's notorious for accidents even in GOOD weather, and a dump truck proved to be lethal for the Prizm-my husband spun out of control due to the rainfall on the road and got hit by a dump truck in the driver's side-believe it or not, he not only missed getting killed literally by inches, but WALKED away from the wreck! Having saved both our lives, we figured the Prizm didn't owe us a thing, and opted to have it parted out.

We now have a "fleet" of two vehicles, a 1996 Chevy Cavalier, and a 1995 Isuzu Trooper. Both have anti-lock brakes, air bags, and they handle great! Fortunately, both kids are years away from learning to drive, but we've already decided that we're not buying them their own wheels. However, they will have to contribute to their insurance (meaning part-time jobs), and if their grades slip, they get their privileges yanked! We live in a small town, so they could easily bicycle to their jobs on nice days (unless they're within walking distance, then there's no need to drive at all). And like us, they have to learn to fix up and maintain vehicles before they learn to drive 'em!

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | October 7, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

"ArmyBrat must like to type.

Posted by: jezebel3 | October 7, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse"

Julius, with VoxForge speech library. Cool stuff - no typing.

Why yes, I AM a geek. :-)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | October 7, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I didn't say all or most or anything like that re: parents.

I just hear so much from people who have kids who are close to driving age - and they talk about how relieved they will be when the oldest gets his/her license so that they can drive themselves and the younger kids to/from activities.

In Atlanta there seem to be a high number of accidents with young teens. And almost no way to get around without a car if you don't live in certain places (and many parents who would NEVER let THEIR precious child take the bus - the horrors!) - and when I hear the above from parents, they don't seem to think there is a correlation between the deaths and their giving the keys to junior no matter what.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | October 7, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Army Brat, you are just too cool! Let's hear it for the geeks! :)


Posted by: lsturt | October 7, 2009 2:16 PM | Report abuse

Although my daughter got her license at 16, I do not permit her to drive unsupervised ever, though she gets plenty of driving practice when I am in the car. She is too easily distracted and I do not feel confident that she would not injure or kill someone without my intervention. She will soon be 18, and could earn money and buy her own car at some point, but hopefully she will be experienced enough to handle it by then. Of course I do not enjoy carting her around, but it beats getting that phone call.

Posted by: rh36 | October 7, 2009 7:31 PM | Report abuse

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