Smile, You're on DriveCam

For American teenagers, turning 16 is a big deal. With this magical age comes the universal ticket to freedom: a driver license. But nowadays, this ticket to freedom can seem more restrictive than a coach-class ticket.

The reason? A growing number of parents in Middle America are armed with new devices that allow them to rein their kids in during this most sacred rite of passage. Some parents put GPS tracking devices on their teens' cars to follow their every move, while others install black boxes that monitor their speed. Now, some parents are turning to in-car video cameras to monitor their kids' behavior behind the wheel.

The maker of DriveCam, a blessed or cursed device depending on your POV, says the camera is intended to reduce risky driving behaviors, but most teens would say it's just another way for parents to pry. So what should you do when your parents decide that you need a camera in your car? Make it work for you.

We'll tell you everything there is to know about the insurance-company-sponsored device and even arm you with some great ways to transform it from intrusive Big Brother to your favorite driving companion.

Background: What Is It?

The automotive equivalent of the "black box" data recorder found in airplanes, DriveCam is a tiny video camera installed behind your vehicle's rearview mirror. Created by risk management company DriveCam Inc., it continuously records both the view forward out the front of the vehicle and inside back at the driver, but never saves any data unless its "accelerometer" is triggered by an erratic or unusual vehicle movement such as extreme braking, cornering, acceleration or a collision.

When the device is activated, it records what it calls an "event," consisting of the 10 seconds before and after the triggering of the accelerometer, showing what happened and why it happened. This video is then wirelessly transferred to a center in Iowa where it is analyzed. After being viewed and scored by this independent group, the results and the video are uploaded onto a Web site that only you and your parents have access to.

On the Teen Safe Driver site, you can watch the video, track your driving score and view the comments provided by the independent analysts. Typically, DriveCam captures very little of your actual driving; "less than 1 percent," says Rusty Weiss, director of the Consumer Division at DriveCam.

Scoring Your Driving

Scores are based on a variable scale of "risk points" — the higher the score, the worse the incident. For example, a "3" is given for excessive speed on a curve, taking your eyes off the road for 2 or more seconds or not wearing a seatbelt. "Unsafe and unnecessary" driving behavior, which could include tire squealing, would earn you a "7." Along with the scores, analysts provide suggestions in hopes of improving teen driver safety. It's like having an invisible driving school instructor in the car with you... except not as intimidating.

Tips for Improving Your Score

Scorers' tips include comments such as "Slower on the curves," "Avoid being in a rush" or "Come to a complete stop before entering traffic." Positive reinforcement is also provided for drivers who execute maneuvers properly, such as "Semi crosses center line — good job avoiding head-on collision."

The Web site also shows a "risk level" indicator that gauges the driver's total number of risk points for the previous seven days. The scores are plotted on a graph to show, for example, a teen's overall performance for the last 12 weeks as compared to his or her peer group average. Essentially, the more gently and carefully you drive, the less likely you are to trigger the recording mechanism, resulting in a lower score.

DriveCam Results

The first teen DriveCam study took place at two high schools, Prior Lake High School in Prior Lake, Minnesota, and Edgewood High School in Madison, Wisconsin. In this study commissioned by American Family Insurance, students with DriveCam's Teen Safe Driver program realized a 70 percent drop in their risky driving behavior. Similarly, a University of Iowa study that examined teens driving in rural Iowa saw a comparable drop in risky driving behavior.

American Family Insurance is not privy to any individual participants' results, but does examine the DriveCam data from a group-wide perspective. Furthermore, the insurance company does not determine its rates based on any of the footage captured. As a result of the study's findings, the insurance company now offers DriveCam free for a year to all of its teen customers within its 18-state coverage area (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin).

Other Ways DriveCam May Help You:

Securing On-Campus Parking at Your High School: "At first, the idea of having a camera in the car was unsettling," Edgewood High School junior Patrick Clancy said. However, when Clancy discovered that he could score on-campus parking as a junior (typically only reserved for seniors and faculty) if he agreed to have the camera installed in his car, he had a very quick change of heart. "I was sick of parking off-campus and the walk to classes in the morning, so of course I took the deal," recalled Clancy.

Many juniors agreed, preferring an onboard camera to parking off-campus. Clancy reported that he actually liked having the camera in the car, stating, "The camera improved my driving so in the end it was beneficial for me to have the DriveCam." So if you're an underclassman looking for a clever way to get a premium parking space, presenting the DriveCam concept, if available in your area, to your principal just might be the way to do it.

Bargaining Chip: Perhaps you can convince your parents to pay for your car insurance if you agree to use DriveCam. Some teens reported that their folks paid for their gas or extended their weekend curfews because they agreed to install the camera in their cars.

Lynn Meloy, whose son Connor participated in the DriveCam study, said, "I was much more comfortable with Connor's driving because of DriveCam, which definitely made me worry less when he stayed out later." One teen said that his parents would never have allowed him to drive to far-off basketball games without the camera. Other DriveCam users reported that they were able to convince their parents to buy better cars because of DriveCam's proven ability to reduce risky driving and insurance claims.

Got Your Back: Here's a great tip for you, albeit double-edged: DriveCam can either prove your innocence or prove your guilt. If there is a traffic dispute that wasn't your fault, judges and police officers are still more likely to believe the older, more experienced driver over you. But since DriveCam records the first 10 seconds before and after a crash, you'll always have the exonerating evidence. If this keeps you from shelling out thousands of dollars in insurance premiums and repair bills, you'll be happy you had DriveCam covering your backside.

Personal Driving Instructor: By monitoring your driving, DriveCam can help you improve your skills. "I definitely became a better driver with DriveCam. Now that I am not in the study and don't have DriveCam, I realized that a lot of the bad habits I overcame did not return even without the camera there," said Patrick Clancy. Becoming a better driver not only stands to benefit you, but also your passengers and your fellow motorists.

DriveCam will be available to people outside of American Family Insurance's 18-state market area in the summer of 2007. The company has yet to announce the cost for the camera to consumers it does not insure.

Click here for a video of DriveCam's in-car footage.

Extra credit: Check out "10 Driving Distractions and How To Deal With Them" for tips on how not to set off your DriveCam, just in case "they're" watching.