Safer Cruising: Program Monitors Teen Drivers for Free

Feb. 28, 2007 — -- Teens are among the riskiest drivers on the road. Within the first six months of getting a license, teens are 16 times more likely to have a crash than 35- to 40-year-old adults.

"Teenagers are at one of the safest points in their life in a vehicle when they're with their parent learning. They have such a low crash rate," said Rusty Weiss of DriveCam. "Then, when mom and dad step out of the car, that crash rate goes the highest it ever will be. And the difference is mom and dad are out of the car."

American Family Mutual Insurance Co. now offers technology made by DriveCam to help teach teens how to change their driving behaviors. It's a video camera mounted in vehicles that records any abrupt maneuvers.

American Family will begin offering the cameras free of charge for up to year to customers with teen drivers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana.

Program participants will get DriveCams mounted on their rear view mirrors. The device has one lens that faces the driver and one that faces the road to capture both internal and external sights and sounds.

The camera is on at all times when the vehicle is being driven but only records when something unusual happens, such as swerving, hard braking or speeding.

Rick Fetherston of American Family Insurance said, "This is a radical approach because it takes 21st-century technology and uses the video, which can be a teaching moment between the parent and the child to talk about a very specific incident of risky driving behavior."

David Hackworthy, a student participating in a study using the DriveCam technology said, "It's made me become aware of my surroundings and what's going on not inside my car but around it and ahead."

DriveCam is currently used in 60,000 fleet vehicles, such as buses and taxis, but this is the first time it's being offered to individuals.

Driving Report Cards

Pilot programs conducted by American Family at Edgewood High School in Madison, Wis., and Prior Lake High School in Prior Lake, Minn., showed that the system lowered risky behavior in teenage drivers by 70 percent to 90 percent over the course of 18 weeks.

When an incident occurs, the camera is triggered to record 10 seconds prior to the event and 10 seconds after. The 20-second clip is analyzed and uploaded to a password-secure Web site that only the parents, teenager and analyst have access to. The site also offers tips on how a similar incident can be prevented in the future.

"The parents get the advantage of a third-party professional driving coach, so they don't have to be the one deciding what were the good behaviors, what were the behaviors that needed improvement," said Weiss.

Each incident is assigned a risk score on a scale of one to 10. At the end of each week, a student is issued a report card with his or her total risk points for the week compared with the group average.

Connor Meloy also participated in one of the pilot studies. In his first week of driving, he was clearly a risky driver. But over the course of the study his driving improved drastically.

"The main thing, obviously, for a teenage boy was speed. And if you take a quick turn or stop quick, hit the brakes hard, it was sensitive," said Meloy. "The main thing that's really helped me with this camera is the speed factor. I've learned to slow that down, take turns slower."

Fetherston said that the program relies on interaction between the parents and the children.

"The key to this program's success is that the parent actually sits down with the teen and communicates and discusses that actual incident of risky driving behavior, talking about, well, why did that happen and how can we try not to have it happen again," Fetherston explained.

Connor's father, Mark Meloy, thought the camera helped add a parental influence when he and his wife could not be in the car.

"We, as parents, can't be with them all the time when they go off with this ability to drive the car. But we do have a set of eyes and a set of ears with the camera and the sound system in the vehicle that picks up these things," said Meloy.

With car accidents as the No. 1 cause of death for teens in the United States, the program is meant to teach new drivers safe habits to prevent dangerous ones from developing.

Weiss estimates that if the crash rate is cut in half for every 20,000 to 25,000 teens in the program, a serious injury will be prevented every day and one death every month.

"Without the program, parents are just left to wonder and they're really left to count the dents and scratches when the kids come back home," said Weiss.

If the program works, American Family Insurance will consider expanding it to all 18 states under its coverage. American Family customers can talk to their agent or go to to volunteer for the program.