Andrew Sarkisian says he finds inspiration in other people's lives, but raising two teenage girls may be more inspiration than he's willing to admit.
Sarkisian, safety manager at Ford Motor, is considered the father of MyKey, a new technology to help parents control some of their teen drivers' behaviors. Ford is rolling it out on several models this year.
The 31-year Ford veteran raised two teenage girls, now both in their 20s, and experienced firsthand something parents dread: learning his eldest daughter, Lauren, was in a rollover accident.
Then came Lauren's second rollover accident — not her fault — and he started brainstorming.
"We wanted to find a way for parents to virtually be in the car with their teens, like they're sitting in the passenger seat coaching them along," he said.
Last year, 4,497 young drivers ages 16 to 20 died in car accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for that age range. Teens are 10% of the population but account for 12% of car fatalities.
MyKey lets parents configure one key as the teen's. When the car is started with MyKey, top speed can be limited to 80 mph, and chimes can be set to sound at 45 mph, 55 mph and 65 mph.
Seat belt use is encouraged in two ways: If the driver and passenger don't put on their belts, a chime sounds until they do. Possibly more important to teens: The audio system won't turn on until the front two passengers are buckled up.
It can also max out the audio at half volume (which is still plenty loud), keep track of the young driver's mileage and provide earlier low-fuel warnings than standard.
MyKey will become standard on most Ford f models; it's available now on a dozen, including Taurus, Focus and Escape SUV.
The decision to make MyKey standard was more than just a marketing maneuver, says Amy Marentic, Ford's marketing manager of large cars and crossovers. The automaker wanted MyKey to be on every car so parents with younger kids who don't need the technology now could have it later, even if they didn't think it was a priority when their children were 9 years old, and buyers of used cars can have it even if the previous owner didn't have children.
Teen driving is a concern now for Marentic, as her daughter, Chloe, is turning 16 in a few days. Chloe received a Ford Taurus as an early birthday present, complete with MyKey, so Marentic and her husband could have some peace of mind.
"It's our job not to put kids in a situation they can't handle," says Marentic, who admits Chloe really wanted a Mustang GT 500, not a Taurus. "You're putting the most important thing in your life behind the wheel, and the data show they will get into an accident in their first year."
Many automakers have moved toward making active safety controls standard so buyers don't have to shell out extra money to get the latest safety gadgets. While Ford's MyKey technology is a good start, many young drivers may never see the benefit, says John Nepomuceno, research administrator with State Farm Insurance.
"Most teens don't drive new vehicles; they drive more affordable, used vehicles," he says. "And not many parents, especially in this day and age, are able to buy a new car with this technology."
While it may help, he adds, it can't stop teen drivers from making bad decisions.
Steve Tepper, president of Driver's Edge, a non-profit group that stresses teen driver education, also says safety technology can only go so far.
"At the end of the day, no matter how many safety features are on the car, you have to have an educated driver behind the wheel," Tepper says. "Active safety features help, of course, and we want to see more of them, but we want to focus on the core of the problem, which is, we're not educating our young drivers well enough in this country."