Two Big Reasons Why Lower Horsepower is Safer for Teen Drivers

High horsepower and teenage drivers don't mix well.
High horsepower and teenage drivers don’t mix well.

It’s tough shopping for a car for your teenage drivers. You want them to be safe, of course, but you also don’t want to spend a fortune, especially since college costs are just around the corner (or are already part of your monthly expenses). I’ve written guides for safe and affordable vehicles for young drivers in the past, and there are simply more issues to consider than when buying vehicles for safer drivers with larger budgets. Even organizations like the IIHS don’t necessarily steer parents in the right directions.

It’s easy to overlook details, as a result, when trying to make the right decisions. Airbags? Of course! ESC? Definitely! Good crash scores? Yes! But there’s a bit more to the picture when it comes to choosing a safe vehicle for your teen driver. One of the most significant areas parents tend to overlook, in my experience, is the horsepower of the vehicles they’re considering for their children. And this can be a rather big area to overlook. Let’s dive into why.
Why is it important to consider horsepower when looking at cars for teen drivers? Aren’t safety features more important?
It’s absolutely true that safety features like crash scores, airbags (front and side), and ESC should be your first priorities when looking for vehicles for teen drivers; these features should also be your priorities when looking for personal or family vehicles at any stage of life. However, horsepower is also particularly important when choosing vehicles for teen drivers because it’s rather significantly linked to the way your teens are likely to drive once alone behind the wheel. To put it simply, vehicles with higher horsepower tend to encourage more dangerous styles of driving, while vehicles with lower horsepower tend to encourage safer driving, either directly or by not encoruaging more dangerous driving. Let’s look at two specific ways lower horsepower can do your teen drivers a favor.
1. Teens are less likely to speed in vehicles with less horsepower
 Speeding is implicated in roughly one out of every three fatal crashes, per the NHTSA, although the actual figures are likely much higher, given the near universal prevalence of speeding in our society. However, given that teenagers are more likely to be involved in fatal crashes per mile traveled than any other group of drivers until age 80, and that male teenage drivers are more than 4x as likely to be involved in fatal crashes than male drivers between 30 and 70 (and almost 6x as likely as female drivers between 30 and 70), it’s in our best interest as parents to do whatever we can to reduce the risks of our teenage drivers making bad decisions. This is particularly the case if we’re parents of male teenage drivers, who are statistically the most dangerous drivers on the road.
High horsepower is seductive to teenage drivers for the same reasons it seduces older drivers; it’s exciting and makes driving seem more fun, more exciting, more like a video game. Our culture glorifies speed and adrenaline and excitement; we equivocate the ability to drive quickly with the ability to free ourselves from the worries of society, blaze new paths, and experience all manner of adventure. It’s a big part of why muscle cars are popular among middle-aged and senior adults; speed symbolizes vitality and youth and vigor and power. Unfortunately, these false associations also attract teenagers, who have less life experience than older adults and are less likely to be able to restrain themselves from chasing the thrills that come with speeding.
Vehicles with less horsepower, on the other hand, simply aren’t exciting. Yes, it’s possible to break the speed limit in any vehicle, but we’re much less likely to do it, or at least do it grievously, in vehicles that aren’t designed to do so easily and with impunity.
2. They’re also less likely to engage in risky driving (like aggressive lane-changing, racing with friends or strangers,  and red-light running)

The second and more broad reason to avoid vehicles with high horsepower for ones with low horsepower is that vehicles with less horsepower are less likely to encourage teenagers to engage in a wide range of risky behaviors, including aggressive lane changes, street-racing (whether with friends or with strangers), and running red lights.

The reasons behind this are related to the reasons behind why teens (and all drivers) are more likely to speed when behind the wheels of more powerful vehicles and more likely to drive prudently when piloting normally powered vehicles: the power is seductive. Many studies have shown people are more likely to display aggressive behaviors when driving or commuting than when walking or cycling, and statistically speaking, we’re more likely to act as if we’re characters in action movies (changing lanes rapidly, revving our engines at stop lights, trying to beat stale yellows) when we think we’ve got the muscle beneath the hood to do so. If this doesn’t sound like something you’d do, that’s great! But if you’ve got a teenage driver–and a male one in particular–he or she is unlikely to have as much temperance as you do, and it’s highly likely that you didn’t have as much restraint as you currently do when you were 16, 17, 18, or 19.

Cars with less power are driven more practically and less aggressively, which makes them and their drivers safer.

But I heard higher horsepower was safer, since it allows you to merge safely / avoid errant vehicles / etc…?

This is a frequently-given reason for choosing vehicles with a bit of “get up and go!” as a good friend of mine calls it. However, the truth is that virtually any vehicle made since 2000 onward has more than enough power to merge safely, and you don’t need 250 horsepower to make it into a lane or to avoid a vehicle that has swerved into yours. What you are more likely to do with that extra horsepower is speed or drive recklessly, which is more likely to lead to a collision or a loss of control. Don’t believe the hype; pretty much anything that comes with an EPA sticker has enough power to get you where you need to go or keep up with traffic. If you’re wanting more power just so you can”have it when you need it”, keep in mind that your teenager isn’t going to be nearly as good of a judge of “when s/he needs it” as you are.

What do you recommend as a horsepower limit for vehicles teenagers are likely to drive?

That’s a great question. I hesitate to give a specific number, as different vehicles react differently with different amounts of weight and engine capacities. However, more broadly, I’d recommend choosing the smallest cylinder option available within a given vehicle, and the lowest horsepower trim level available if you have the choice. Again, whatever you choose will have more than enough power to help you travel wherever you’re going safely. The smaller engines and lower horsepower trims, as an aside, will almost always result in better fuel economy too, as the engines won’t be excessively large. And if you’re considering two otherwise similar vehicles, be sure to take a look at the horsepower figures; what you find may surprise you, and may make a large difference in how safe of a driver your teen is when s/he gets the keys.

If pressed for a number, I’d recommend trying to keep the horsepower to 200 or lower, or at least as low as possible past 200 if you can’t get below 200. In my most recent comparison of safe vehicles for teen drivers, for example, that would mean choosing the Galant or Jetta over the Passat or TL; it would mean choosing the CR-V over the Outlander, and the Yaris over the Forte.

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