Keeping Tabs on Teen Drivers

Surveillance devices alert parents of speeding, texting teenagers.

January 8, 2009, 12:15 AM

May 20, 2008— -- Teenagers beware: Big brother is watching -– and so are mom and dad.

A high-tech surveillance system that allows parents to keep tabs on their teen drivers becomes more widely available starting later this week. If teenagers are driving too fast, parents will get an instant text message. If they break the driving curfew that parents have set on the car, an alert sent to mom and dad will make them the first to know.

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"Most teenagers want to think about their friends, they're thinking about school, they're thinking about the dance, their football game, their cell phone; and driving is not something they think about," said Jim Havens, vice president of consumer solutions at Safeco Insurance.

"What we've found is that when parents talk to the teens and the teens know the program, they are thinking about driving when they are behind the wheel and they are not thinking about all those other things as much," he said.

Safeco started offering GPS tools to its customers last year and is now making them available to all families for about $15 a month.

The program is the latest in an ever-expanding effort to watch teens behind the wheel without sitting beside them in the passenger's seat. Other insurance companies, like AIG Auto Insurance and American Family Insurance Co., give parents glimpses into teenagers' cars, whether through GPS systems or cameras attached to the rear-view mirror. The devices can record audio and video footage when motion sensors pick up on erratic driving, or document risky moments so parents and teenagers can later review what happened.

Still, at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, senior vice president for research Anne McCartt acknowledged that parents are "not lining up to make use of these devices."

"We do know that some parents may be reluctant to make use of this device, that teens may believe they are invasions of their privacy or intrusive; cost may be a factor," she said.

"Although the devices have potential, we don't know yet how effective the devices will be in modifying teens' behavior, and just as important, we don't know whether teens and parents will accept these devices," McCartt said.

The expansion of the newest GPS notification system comes on the heels of sobering statistics about teenage drivers. Data released Monday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that in 2006, 68 percent of drivers between the ages of 16 and 20 who were killed in car accidents at night were not wearing seat belts.

Because teens who haven't had their licenses long are risky drivers, those touting the surveillance devices hope that with mom and dad watching, teenagers will refine their driving habits, slow down and behave.

In Greensboro, N.C., Dana Hamilton said it seemed like a "no-brainer" to enroll in the program for her son, Trey, 17.

Trey Hamilton has taken advantage of the system to get help from his parents when he locked his keys in the car. The GPS device also recently alerted the Hamiltons when Trey exceeded the 65 mile per hour speed limit his parents had set for him while driving his sister to cheerleading practice.

"It is something that stays in the back of my mind, that, yeah, I need to drive safely in order to stay good with my parents right now," Trey Hamilton said.

Dana Hamilton said, "If you don't trust your child with the car, you shouldn't give them the car. I think this is more of a safety and a 'just in case' kind of situation, just knowing you're not helpless in the case of an emergency."

Havens said teens are initially hesitant to use the system but adapt to it well. He said there has been a decline in accidents among the teenagers already in the program.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is conducting a long-term study on the efficacy of tools to track teen driving.

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