QDear Tom and Ray:

You give such sage advice that I thought you might be able to help me out. We gave our twin children (a boy and a girl, now 19) the promise of their first cars when they graduate from high school. We told them they would be used cars, and they would be expected to pay all related costs. We also said they would not get their cars until we all agreed that they are ready for the responsibility. Now that they've completed their first year of college, they've started lobbying for their cars. Since they both seem to want different things in a car, I've decided to give them each a set amount of money, and if they want something newer or fancier, they can pay the difference themselves. The question is, What is a fair and reasonable amount of money to give them that will put them in a decent, safe car? We live in the Midwest, if that matters. By the way, you should know that my wife and I have promised ourselves that our kids CANNOT be driving nicer cars than we are. She has a 2002 Mazda 626, and I have a '98 Jetta with 86,000 miles. -- Scoop

ATOM: My number is $5,000, Scoop. I think that's both fair and reasonable. If you want to make them work a little harder or suffer a little more, you could ratchet that down another thousand or so. But I think you can get a decent, safe car for $5,000.

RAY: Yeah, like a '98 Jetta with about 85,500 miles on it (but don't worry, Scoop, you can always go out and whack a dent in it to make it uglier than yours).

TOM: Actually, our primary criterion for young, new drivers is safety. And for $5,000, you can certainly find a decent, late-1990s Ford Crown Vic with air bags and maybe even anti-lock brakes. That's a pretty safe car because of its heft. Or you can get an early- to mid-1990s Honda Accord, which has front-wheel drive, is reasonably safe and is extremely reliable.

RAY: You could even get an early-'90s Volvo, like a '93 or '94 850, which is a real tank. But then you'd have to worry about significant repair costs and the real possibility of the kids, with their leather seats, showing you up in your Jetta, Scoop.

TOM: I would add one rule to your deal with the kids: I would insist that you be able to approve the type of car before they buy it. Maybe your kids are great, sensible young adults. But at 19, it's unlikely.

RAY: Right. You don't want your 19-year-old boy taking your five grand and buying himself a Camaro or Firebird, or something else he's going to drive at 100 miles an hour and wrap himself around a tree in. Left to their own devices, most 19-year-old boys would do just that. That's why God invented parents. Good luck, Scoop.

Dear Tom and Ray:

I was involved in a very serious accident a month ago. An 18-wheeler hit me from behind and sandwiched me into a van in front of me. The entire front end of my car (1996 Cadillac Eldorado) was smashed in, yet the air bag did not inflate. Even though I had my seat belt on, my head swung forward and hit the steering wheel. I was very upset that the bag did not inflate, but the dealer claimed that even though all the sensors were hit (to put it mildly), air bags will not inflate unless you are going at least 35 mph. And they will rarely inflate if you are hit from behind. Is what he told me true? -- Lana

RAY: Sort of, Lana. Normally, when you're hit from behind, you're pushed backward into the seat -- rather than forward into the steering wheel -- and once you're pushed back into the seat, you're supposed to be held in place by the seat belt. How your head hit the steering wheel, I'm not sure. Perhaps the seat-belt mechanism failed and didn't lock to hold you in place.

TOM: But since the primary impact of a rear-end collision moves you backward, the air bag is not designed to go off in that case.

RAY: Now, if you're in a "sandwich" collision -- like my brother with a pastrami on rye the other day -- where you're hit from behind and pushed into something, the air bag can go off. But it will only go off if the frontal part of the collision occurred while the car was traveling more than 15 to 20 mph. In other words, if the front end was slowly mushed, the way yours was, the air bag would likely not go off -- especially if the car used inertial sensors.

TOM: Without an accident reconstruction team, we may never know exactly how fast the front of your car was traveling when it hit the back of the van.

RAY: So we can't say for sure whether the air bag performed correctly when it didn't go off, but circumstances suggest that it did just what it was programmed to do.

TOM: And the fact that you're alive to write to us is further evidence that things worked as they should have. Aside from the Cadillac wreath emblem that's permanently embossed in your forehead, it sounds like everything has worked out all right. We hope so, Lana.

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(c)2004 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman