How To Keep Tabs on Your Teen Driver
Good Parenting vs. Privacy Invasion and the Tools to Use
Thanks to commercial satellites, digital memory devices, miniature cameras and GPS tracking, it's easier than ever to keep tabs on your teen driver.
But should you? Does using GPS to track a teen driver represent a violation of the trust that should exist between you and your teen? Is it an invasion of your teen's privacy? Or is it responsible parenting?
The answers are yes, yes and yes.
NHTSA data shows that unaccompanied 16- and 17-year-olds crash nine times more often than adults. And when their parents are out of the car, seatbelt use plummets to less than 40 percent of the national average. While the accident data shows that teens and their teenage passengers are by far the most accident-prone group, that isn't the case when Mom or Dad is riding along. A monitoring tool may be the "next best thing" to having a parent riding shotgun, though few teens are likely to admit that.
Rusty Weiss is director of the consumer division at DriveCam, which sells monitoring cameras to parents. When his company shows parents video of their teens driving, they are often shocked to see how their kids behave when driving alone. "Parents couldn't recognize the risky behaviors," says Weiss. A frequent problem: Teens take corners too fast and have to brake so late and hard that their safety belts lock up.
Weiss thinks having a camera in the car "prevents some of the craziest stuff — the 'if I got caught doing this I'd never be able to drive again' stuff."
Teenagers tend to respond by driving more safely with such devices, says J. Peter Kissinger, CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "People raise questions like, 'Does that destroy the trust?' It probably depends on the relationship you have with your teenager."
But DriveCam's Weiss says not all devices are created equal when it comes to trust. He says some parents have complained to him that using GPS monitoring made them feel that they were spying on their teens over the Internet. The goal, he says, should be catching them if "they drive in an unsafe manner," not because they are visiting "friends that Mom and Dad don't approve of sometimes."
High-Tech Monitor Options Abound
Some more advanced systems marry different technologies, while others allow parents to do it themselves.
- State-of-the-art pedometers and watches come equipped with GPS devices, so that exercise-conscious adults can log distances and terrain covered on their jogs or walks for upload to their PCs. Charge its battery, set the GPS device and leave it under the car seat. Collect it when the car is returned. You'll get the same info on your teen's travels.
- Sprint's Family Locator and Verizon's Chaperone service use a teen's GPS-equipped cell phone to keep them under the watchful eye of the satellites. Parents can then log into online sites to follow their teen's location.
- A "black box" similar to devices used to track emergency vehicles and commercial trucks lets parents monitor teen driving in real-time through a laptop or cell phone. The system, which blends cell phone technology with GPS, can be preset to snitch by sending automatic alerts when a young driver is driving too fast, too far or somewhere he's not meant to be. The system also records speed, miles covered and other driving details on a memory card that can be downloaded later. Black-box makers include Road Safety International and Alltrack USA. In June 2007, Safeco Insurance began offering "Teensurance," a GPS monitoring device for teens and online tools to reinforce good driving.
- DriveCam's more advanced system employs a tiny onboard camera that records when risky driving, including speeding, hard-braking or swerving from lane to lane, occurs. The video information, including images from the seconds immediately preceding the precipitating event, is sent to a panel of safety analysts who provide diagnoses and possible solutions. American Family Insurance policy holders are eligible for a free one year subscription to the Teen Safe Driver Program. If you have a different insurance provider, DriveCam also offers the technology to any interested families for $899, including installation and a year's subscription. (For details on DriveCam and how it works, see "Smile, You're on DriveCam.")
In a 2007 paper, David Eby and C. Raymond Bingham of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute noted another potential problem — systems that provide feedback to drivers while they are in the car could make teen drivers "overly reliant" on technology and less able to judge appropriate behavior behind the wheel.
Despite the concerns, Allen Robinson of the American Driver & Traffic Safety Education Association says the devices are worth it. Driver-monitoring devices are likely to record a different story from the one teens are telling, he says, helping parents get to the truth about what's happening on the road.
According to a recent IIHS study, high tech devices worked best when a teen heard an alert in the vehicle and had a chance to correct the behavior -- before the parents were notified. For these teens, driving more than 10 miles per hour over the speed limit dropped by almost 60 percent, and sudden braking and acceleration fell by almost 40 percent.
The Lower-Tech Route Still Effective
Since the high-tech monitoring route isn't for everyone, there are other, more low-tech ways to prevent risky driving behavior. For example, get an idea how many miles your teen's usual trips should cover and keep a log of your odometer. (If you have an E-Z Pass or FastTrak transponder affixed to the vehicle your teen drives, you can easily check your account.) To check if your teen is reporting his driving habits accurately, just do the math. Teens who drive much farther than they are supposed to are probably using roads that are unfamiliar or should be off limits, putting them at greater risk.
Another option: a bumper sticker that urges motorists to report bad driving to a toll-free number. The voicemail is forwarded to your cell phone. Drawbacks are obvious — practical jokers, for example — but the system is fast and cheap at HotFoot.info.
Below are links to all of the installments in this series.
Part I: How To Crashproof Your Teenager
Part II: Laying Down the Law for Your Teen Driver
Part III: Finding a Driver's Ed Program That Really Works
Part IV: Choosing the Safest Car for Your Teen
Part V: How To Keep Tabs on Your Teen Driver
Jayne O'Donnell is an auto writer at USA Today and specializes in car safety.