The leading cause of death among young drivers in the United States is traffic accidents. Though people between ages 15 and 24 are about 14 percent of the total population, they are involved in more than 28 percent of accidents involving injuries.

Those injuries can be avoided or minimized by putting teens in cars that have high safety ratings. But how many families can buy a brand-spanking new car loaded with safety features when their teens take to the road? Not many. So, which used cars are safest?

The fact is that more than 80 percent of families purchasing a vehicle for their new drivers bought used cars and half of those vehicles were more than eight years old. Many older vehicles lack the safety features that are proven to reduce or avoid injuries. Understanding which used cars are safest can help guide you through the purchasing process.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has recently released its first-ever ratings for the safest used vehicles. Here’s what they say about their criteria and the cars that performed well according to their standards.

  • Young drivers should stay away from high horsepower.Vehicles with more powerful engines can tempt them to test the limits.
  • Bigger, heavier vehicles protect better in a crash.There are no minicars or small cars on the recommended list. Small SUVs are included because their weight is similar to that of a midsize car.
  • Electronic stability control is a must.This feature, which helps a driver maintain control of the vehicle on curves and slippery roads, reduces risk on a level comparable to safety belts.
  • Vehicles should have the best safety ratings possible.At a minimum, that means good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front test, acceptable ratings in the IIHS side crash test and four or five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The challenge for families is to find something that is affordable to own and operate while maximizing proven safety features. The “best” used car choices for safety according to IIHS range in price from $7,300 to $20,000. Here are cars selling under $10,000 that earned their “best” rating:

MAKE MODEL YEAR PRICE  Estd  MPG
Volvo XC90 2005 + $7,300   18
Volkswagen Jetta 2009 + $8,200   24
Subaru Tribeca/B9 Tribeca 2006 + $8,500   18
Honda Element 2007 + $8,900   22
Volvo S80 2007 + $9,000   19
Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen 2009 + $9,400   24
Volvo C30 2008 + $9,800   23

Vehicles priced under $6,000 that earned a “good” rating from the IIHS included:

MAKE MODEL YEAR PRICE  Estd  MPG
Saab 9-3 2005 + $4,000   23
Kia Sedona 2006 + $4,600   18
Volkswagen Passat 2006-08 $5,100   22
Suzuki Grand Vitara 2006 + $5,600   19
Hyundai Azera 2006 + $5,700   20

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite vehicle safety features, it is inexperience and just plain poor judgment that most often leads to accidents and injuries.

  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situationsor not be able to recognize hazardous situations.
  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next). The presence of male teenage passengers increases the likelihood of this risky driving behavior.
  • Among male drivers between 15 and 20 years of age who were involved in fatal crashes in 2010, 39 percent were speedingat the time of the crash, and 25 percent had been drinking.
  • Compared with other age groups, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use. In 2011, only 54 percent of high school students reported they always wear seat belts when riding with someone else.

Gratefully, some states such as Maine have significantly increased the amount of time new drivers must have behind the wheel before taking the driver’s license road test. It now is required that 70 hours be driven with an adult licensed driver, and 10 of those hours must be at night.

During their first nine months of holding a license, according to the law, drivers under age 18 also

  • may not carry passengers other than family members unless accompanied in the front seat by a person over the age of 20 holding a valid driver’s license for at least two years
  • may not drive from the hours of midnight to 5 a.m.
  • may not operate a motor vehicle while using a mobile telephone.

Police tend to have a zero tolerance for infractions of this safety provision; violators must start a new nine-month restriction.

Though there are no guarantees, having parents with high expectations who consistently enforce rules may help keep kids safe and will remind them that having a license is a privilege, not a right. Also, remind kids that good grades mean discounts on their insurance.