Car Tracking Devices for Teen Drivers

New teen drivers have always worried parents. And for good reason.

In 2011, nearly 2,000 drivers ages 15-20 died in traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Since 2002, the traffic-related deaths in that age range have declined by 48 percent, but there's still a long way to go.

If you're a parent who's rattled by these statistics, there's an expanding array of options for monitoring your teen's driving as he or she gains experience. The approaches include car GPS tracking devices that show when a teen has strayed beyond a set boundary, an in-car camera system that activates when a teen driver has executed a risky maneuver and a smart key that can block incoming calls and texts. It can even turn down the radio.

Many experts, including those who study teenage brains, give car tracking devices with cameras or other technology a qualified thumbs up.

"I think these devices are fine, as long as the teen driver is aware that they have been installed," says Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University and an expert in teen development. "I'm not in favor of parents spying on their adolescents."

Technology notwithstanding, it's crucial to have a frank parent-teen talk about driving and expectations, he says.

Steinberg's research shows that parental fears about teen driving have a credible basis. A teen with excellent technical driving skills does not necessarily have mature judgment behind the wheel, he says.

"The brain systems that are important for things like impulse control, thinking ahead and evaluating risks are still developing when people are 16, 17, even 18 years old," Steinberg says.

Until teen drivers have gained that maturity behind the wheel, here is a sampling of the tracking and monitoring technologies available from insurance companies, cell phone providers, carmakers and safety organizations.

Linking the Family
OnStar's Family Link option, launched in April 2012, now has more than 23,000 of OnStar subscribers enrolled, says Cheryl McCarron, a company spokesperson. Parents can log on to Family Link online to check their teen's progress during a trip. Its GPS-based Location Alert tells the teen's whereabouts. Parents can set the parameters for how often they want updates by e-mail or text.

It's well used, says McCarron. "On average, an enrollee uses the Vehicle Locate service 50 times a month to locate their vehicle," she says. The alert service sends out 800,000 texts and e-mails a month.

The cost is $3.99 a month added to the OnStar subscription packages ($199-$299 yearly). More information is available from OnStar.

Locating Your Teens
Many cell phone carriers, including Sprint offer phone-based locator services that use the device's GPS capabilities. Verizon's product is called Family Locator. If you're a Verizon customer, you can set up ''arrival'' and ''departure '' alerts so you're notified when a teen leaves one point (such as school) and again when he returns home. The service also provides an estimate of how fast a driver is traveling. It's an extra $9.99 a month from Verizon.

Newer is Diagnostics by Delphi, also offered by Verizon. In addition to offering vehicle diagnostic services through the car's onboard diagnostic port, Diagnostics by Delphi uses GPS capabilities to let you set up geo-fences, which are virtual fences applied to real-world geography. Parents get e-mail alerts when the car goes beyond those limits, says Albert Aydin, a Verizon spokesperson. Speed alerts tell you if your teen is driving more than 75 mph. The module, $249.99, can be added to the Share Everything account for $5 monthly.

AAA offers a similar device as part of its OnBoard Teen Safe Driver program. It's free for AAA members who have a teen driver insured by the Interinsurance Exchange of the Automobile Club.

Putting Teens on Camera
DriveCam is a monitoring camera, placed on the windshield behind the rearview mirror. It films your teen as she drives, recording risky events and flashing lights that change colors when the risky maneuvers occur. Parents and teens then review the video together and the teen gets feedback, says Bill Carpenter, a spokesperson for DriveCam.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) and others tested the system in an independent study. They assigned 90 pairs of parents and teens to two groups. One group only got immediate feedback on their driving via the lights warning them of risky maneuvers. The other group watched the videos with their parents and got their feedback.

"The group getting both light feedback and feedback from parents changed their behavior immediately," says C. Raymond Bingham, Ph.D., a research professor at UMTRI who helped lead the study. Teens who just got feedback from the system did not. The combination seems to be the key, he says.

Policy holders at American Family Insurance can get DriveCam at no charge. Others can get it for $49 a month.

Setting Speeds, Blocking Tunes
Ford's MyKey program, launched in 2010 on the Ford Focus, has been expanded and updated, says Kelli Felker, a Ford Motor Company spokesperson. It's now standard on all models except Fiesta and Transit Connect. When the new models of those two are introduced, they, too, will have the MyKey feature, she says.

Parents can program the MyKey so it mutes the radio until the seatbelt is buckled and can also limit radio volume while teens are driving. MyKey's Do Not Disturb feature blocks incoming phone calls or texts from a Bluetooth-paired cell phone. Calls are diverted to voicemail. Text messages are saved on the phone. Drivers can still place voice-activated outgoing calls, including calls for emergency services. Speed can be limited to under 80 mph.

Hyundai's Blue Link telematics system offers notification benefits to parents. Available on select 2012 and 2013 Hyundai models, this system allows parents to set speed alerts that notify them if their teen's car is driven over a certain speed or if the vehicle crosses set geo-fence boundaries. This feature will be rolled out across the entire Hyundai fleet over the next couple of years. Blue Link also allows parents to monitor curfews. If their teen's car is driven after 10 p.m. on a particular night, for example, Blue Link can notify parents via text message, e-mail or phone.

The Mercedes-Benz mbrace2 telematics system is now standard on most 2013 models. It, too, allows geo-fences, has speed alerts and a curfew minder.

Mbrace2 also has Internet-enabled features such as Facebook. However, when the car is in motion, some functions on apps are automatically restricted or limited, such as the ability to view certain things on the screen or to type in entries.

Expert Views
Safety experts agree with Steinberg that the first thing parents and teens need is a frank talk about driving. After that, monitors can be effective as a supplement.

"The research shows that the monitors can be effective in changing how teens behave behind the wheel and reducing dangerous driving," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. However, he also has found that some parents — as well as teens — balk at the use of in-car monitoring, considering it an invasion of privacy.

The technologies are a ''potentially promising extension of parents' presence in the car," says Justin McNaull, director of the American Automobile Association's state relations department. He led development of Keys2Drive, AAA's state-specific Web sites for families of teen drivers. However, he says, there has been limited scientific research on how best to use them.

Risks That Bear Watching
Whether you decide to monitor or not, research suggests some driving situations are riskier than others. A new teen driver carrying teen passengers is especially risky, Steinberg says. He compares it to having a drink or two before you drive.

"I don't know a parent who would smell alcohol on her son's breath and hand him the car keys," Steinberg says. Yet many think nothing about letting teens who are new to driving carry passengers, he says.

Putting limits on letting teens drive with passengers (particularly with other teens) is an important element in most states' graduated driver licensing laws.

In a new study, Steinberg has found that teens' risky behavior decisions may be influenced by friends. The feedback they get from friends for "I-dare-you'' behavior may tune the brain's reward system to be even more sensitive to the reward value of such behavior, he says. As a result, Steinberg says, teens may focus more on the short-term benefit they feel from the risky behavior more than the long-term benefit of staying safe.

Car Tracking Technology Can't Replace Good Parenting
While car tracking devices for teen drivers may help you, as a parent, set and enforce the rules, no technology will replace your ongoing involvement, McNaull says.

"And a concern that many of us as safety advocates have is that parents will have a technology in place, then not continue to stay otherwise engaged," he says. That engagement, he says, should be ongoing and include such tasks as practicing driving with your teen and having check-ins on driving progression.

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