Learner driver cars - Keeping our kids safe.

With the new year having just turned, thoughts will inevitably be turning to the next set of new drivers about to get their first official miles beneath their wheels – our kids. For lots of families this year, as with each year, will be the one where the next son or daughter to turn 17 will apply for their precious provisional licence and get started on that magical road of motoring. For all the changes, all the wingeing legislation and traffic congestion, getting your first licence, your first car still means freedom to younger drivers.
Of course, the other side of the coin is the aspect of safety and this will be the one worrying parents up and down the country. For all the improvements in road safety over the past decade, and there have been many, the sad and simple fact is that those aged 16-25 still make up the most vulnerable group on our roads, and half of all drivers killed in accidents are in that age group.
There was worrying news from the US this week, in a survey carried out by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). As part of an investigation into deaths on US roads between 1998 and 2012, the IIHS noted that there is a serious issue regarding the safety levels of the learner driver car driven by younger drivers.

Learner car safety

Because younger drivers (and their parents) often struggle to afford a second or third car for them to drive, they are often forced into buying older cars, fitted with less (sometimes none) of the more modern safety equipment whether it be side airbags, anti-lock brakes or the all-important Electronic Stability Control (ESC). Indeed, the survey found that of all of the teenage drivers killed on US roads in that 14-year period, only three per cent were driving cars fitted with ESC. In recent year, systems such as ESC and ABS have been made mandatory on all new car, but the IIHS found that such moves take many years – decades even – to filter down through the national car park. In fact, it’s estimated that for a single safety item, it can take 30 year from the time it’s made mandatory on new cars to the time when it can be found on 95 per cent of the registered cars on the road.
Here in Ireland, it’s a situation we know all too well. The insurance companies have their blinkers well and truly on, forcing young drivers to stick to 1.0-litre engine limits in order to keep their early premiums any way affordable. That ignores utterly the mass-industry move away from 1.0-litre engines in the nineties and early 2000's to 1.2-litre engines (1.2 engines are now the staple of the small hatchback class and are only very recently beginning to be supplanted by newer technology 1.0-litre engines, which ironically have as much if not more power) and sticks student drivers with a restricted choice of older, far less safe cars with which to start their driving careers.
There are a few ways around this dilemma though. Smaller cars have been getting significantly safer in the last decade and a half, and while that may occasionally mean busting through the 1.0-litre limit and thereby making for a more expensive first premium, these are the safest small cars your budding driver can start learning on:

Citroen C1/Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 107.

These three small cars were all built together in the same Czech factory and are only different in terms of their badges and some exterior styling bits. Cheap to run and buy, they do come with the magic 1.0-litre engine size, thereby keeping insurance costs down, and scored a healthy four stars on the EuroNCAP crash test. You will struggle to find one with ESC though.

Fiat 500.

The 500 is becoming increasingly popular with driving schools thanks to its nippy handling and distinctive shape. It’s a good choice for the learner too – so small that it’s hard to hit anything but stylish enough to make the other kids jealous. It’s only in recent years that a 1.0-litre engine has been fitted though (actually a 900cc two-cylinder engine) and it does come with a turbo, so sticking to the older 1.2 unit might actually be a better balance of cost and insurance. It too scored a four-star safety rating from EuroNCAP and ESC has always been available as an option.

Hyundai i10.

Just replaced, the first-generation i10 proved that small and affordable didn’t have to mean cheap and cheerless. Excellent reliability and a frugal 1.1-litre engine are major bonuses, both from a running cost and insurance point of view, and if your budget stretches to one younger than five-years-old, it’ll still have some warranty left. A four-star EuroNCAP car, and again was available with optional ESC.

Mazda 2

At last, a small five-star NCAP car, albeit one that will bust your engine size budget as the smallest unit on offer was Mazda’s 1.3-litre. It only had 75hp but your insurance company may quibble. Still the fact that it got full marks for safety, and could be had with ESC might mean that it’s worth arguing the point and finding a good insurance broker to help keep the costs down. Sharp handling and reliable Mazda build quality are bonuses.

Nissan Micra.

The sin qua non of the learner car, the Micra has always been one of the most popular first cars around thanks to its tiny size, tiny engines and simple reliability. However, while the old 1993 Micra did indeed come with a 1.0-litre engine, it also had the safety protection of wet lettuce, so it’s worth biting the insurance bullet and upgrading to a post-2003 model with the 1.2-litre engine – that got four stars from EuroNCAP and came with optional ESC.

Opel Corsa.

Again, a five-start safety rating makes the Corsa a truly desirable car for a younger driver. ESC was available and, praise be, it could be had with a 1.0-litre engine. You need to be looking at post-2006 models to get the full five-star rating but they’re plentiful on the ground and very cheap to buy and run. Good to drive, and spacious too.

Seat Ibiza.

This is the post-2002 model we’re looking at here, always a popular choice for a first car and thanks to its close mechanical relationship with the Volkswagen Polo, a very solid and safe one too. It got four-stars from EuroNCAP on the crash test, could be specified with ESC but sadly came with a 1.2-litre engine as its smallest unit. Again, one worth doing the legwork on the insurance side to keep the premium as low as possible.

Toyota Yaris.

From 2005 onwards, the Yaris carried a five-star EuroNCAP rating and, yes, came with a 1.0-litre engine too. Toyota’s legendary reliability and that frugal little engine should keep the daily running costs down, and you should be able to track one down with ESC. Lots around, so be choosy about condition and history.
And of course, when you’ve found the ideal learner driver car for junior, don’t forget to get it history checked by Motorcheck. Get their motoring started on the right foot, after all.