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Safest Cars for Teens, Seniors

Almost 34,000 people died in traffic accidents in the United States last year.

In general, the two groups of drivers most at risk on the road are teens and seniors.

And Consumer Reports just named the vehicles it deems the safest ones for them.

On "The Early Show", David Champion, the senior director of the magazine's Automotive Test Center in East Haddam, Conn., pointed out that teens often want flashy, fast cars that wouldn't be their wisest choice, and many seniors aren't aware of many of the newer brands and models that could help as their mobility fades and other aging issues arise.

Teen Motorist Must-Haves
* Reasonably Sized
* Good Crash Test Results
* 4 Cylinder Engine Without Too Much Power
* Numerous Safety Features

For teens, Champion explained, you want to find a car, even a used car, that's a reasonably-sized sedan with safety features such as electronic stability control and curtain air bags, and good crash-test results, but that don't have too much power. Make sure the car has a strong structure.

Electronic stability control, he adds, has been around since 1998 and basically keeps the car from going out of control. It takes electronic traction control a step further. The technology helps keep the vehicle on its intended path during a turn, to avoid sliding or skidding. It uses a computer linked to a series of sensors that detect wheel speed, steering angle, sideways motion and spin. If the car starts to drift, the stability-control system momentarily brakes one or more wheels and, depending on the system, reduces engine power to keep the car back on course. This technology is currently available on many high-end vehicles, but will be standard on all 2012 cars. It's important technology and will save thousands of lives, many of them those of teens and less experienced drivers.

When you're looking for cars with electronic stability control, note that it comes under different names. Consumer Reports hopes "ESC" will become a standard abbreviation in the future (the Society of Automotive Engineers has asked that all manufacturers use electronic stability control, or ESC, as common terminology when referring to their stability-control systems), but automakers are using a variety of proprietary names and acronyms. You might see it called Stabilitrack, Vehicle Stability Assist, or AdvanceTrac, or with variations abbreviations such as ESP, VSC, VDC, and many more.

Parents often think putting their child in the biggest car is the safest way to go, but that's not so. Teens are the most inexperienced drivers on the road, so you don't want to put them in big, heavy cars that are more difficult to control. Instead, choose something that handles well, is agile and has as many safety features as possible.

Also, rather than handing down and old car to a teen, parents should get him or her a new one, with all the safety features. Parents are the skilled, experienced drivers and know all the idiosyncrasies of their vehicles. This is one time in their lives when you're not there to supervise what they're doing. It's the most dangerous part of their lives, so give them the safest car possible.

To get more of the magazine's take on the safest cars for teens, click here.

Among Consumer Reports' picks:
Small sedans: Hyundai Elantra SE (2008-2010), Mazda3 (2007 - ), Scion xB (2008 - )
Midsized sedans: Acura TSX (2004-), Honda Accord (2008 - ), Kia Optima (2007 - )
Small SUVs: Honda CR-V (2005 - ), Nissan Rogue (2008 - )

The Mazda3, Champion says, is a very nice small call. It has good stability, good size, good crash test results, side curtain air bags and good brakes. The handling is precise and responsive, and the ride is firm and comfortable. The pleasant, practical, fun-to-drive Mazda3 uses a 2.0-liter engine that's relatively quick and stingy with fuel. It's been one of Consumer Reports' top-scoring small cars for several years and, with a price tag of $13,025 - $19,070, is an excellent car for teens.

2010 Honda Accord EX, Champion says, has been a perennial top pick of the magazine The Accord is one of the best sedans on the market. It has enough performance, agile handling, and good crash test results. All models have standard stability control. The Accord is the only vehicle to make both lists: It's a best for teens as well as a Best Family Sedan for Senior Drivers. For seniors, it works well because of its wide seats, and because it's easy to get in and out of. The controls are simple and well-marked (controls go across the center of the dash). The driving position is excellent, the seats are supportive, visibility is impressive, and the rear seat is very roomy. It lists for $22,795.

Senior Motorists' Must-Haves:
* Easy Access
* Good Visibility
* Roomy Driving Position
* Easy-to-read Controls

Consumer Reports recommends vehicles for seniors that are easy to get in and out off, have good visibility all around the car (since it's often difficult for seniors to move their necks enough to look at all the blind spots), roomy, with comfortable seats and simple, easy-to-read controls.

As you age, it takes you longer to look up and process things you see on the road and react using a car's controls. You want to know exactly where that button is before taking your eyes off the road. Some cars today have the buttons tightly grouped together. Virginia Tech Transportation Institute did a study on distracted driving and found that any glance off the road for two seconds or more, greatly increases the chance of a crash. Reaching for an object such as an electronic device made the risk of a crash or near-crash almost one-and-a-half times higher than with non-distracted driving.

For more from the magazine on the best cars for seniors, click here.

Among Consumer Reports' picks:
Minivans: Honda Odyssey
Small SUV: Subaru Forester XT Limited
Upscale sedan: Hyundai Azera
Family sedan: Honda Accord
Microvan: Kia Rondo

The redesigned Subaru Forester, says Champion, is among the best small SUVs. Its cabin is quiet, with a very good fit and finish and a roomy backseat. Safety equipment includes standard curtain air bags and stability control, and crash-test results are excellent. The Forester is a sensible, practical, and affordable vehicle, at $ 22,040.

The Hyundai Azera, Champion observes, is very quiet and comfortable, and has very simple controls. Getting in and out is very easy with large doors. It's an extremely well-optioned car, with tons of bells and whistles at a really good price for a luxury car. This car competes well with Lexus, Mercedes, Infiniti and it's made by Hyundai, not a company that older people would typically look to, so it's a nice surprise for them. It's really a good deal for older drivers.