Teens' ultimate backseat driver?
By John McCormick
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | (MCT) Susan Schauer never gave her teenage son the car keys without also handing him something he wasn't nearly as thrilled about - a small computer chip that kept an eye on his driving.
Plugged into his family's Mazda 626, the chip recorded his speed, miles traveled and any fast starts or stops. If Ben removed the chip, it recorded that too.
"It annoyed the heck out of him," said Schauer, a mother of three. "But it gave me peace of mind."
From real-time GPS tracking systems to onboard cameras, technology is increasingly offering parents tools to track and even control how their teenagers drive. Many of the options are borrowed from fleet managers who have used them for years to monitor truckers and other commercial drivers.
With car crashes the No. 1 killer of teens, taking 5,000 to 6,000 young lives each year, many parents want to learn the truth about how their children drive. Technology can offer them some answers.
"One thing that can change behavior is if you know Mom and Dad are going to find out," said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Safety experts hope that one day automakers will use existing technology to make it impossible to start a car without wearing a seat belt or to exceed preset speed limits.
For Ben's parents in Easton, Md., the technology of choice was the CarChip, a $140 gadget that plugs into the onboard computer in most cars and records up to 75 hours of driving data. When later plugged into a home computer, it lays all the data out for parents to review.
"It feels like you always have someone in the car watching you," said Ben, 17.
After driving with the chip for about a year, Schauer said, Ben's driving skills and temperament matured, and they allowed him to graduate from the practice. "To me, it is such a lovely transition from your child's taking driver's education and just letting them loose," his mother said.
The device used on Ben's car did not provide data until it was downloaded later, but GPS-enabled trackers that instantly transmit information are becoming increasingly available. Some will even send text messages to parents if the car exceeds a certain speed or travels beyond a predefined area.
A growing number of companies are selling the devices over the Internet, albeit still to few parents.
The Sharper Image catalog even includes a GPS tracking device that it says "secretly tracks anything that moves - your car or your kid, or your kid in your car." The monthly airtime packages range from $20 (for updates every 60 minutes) to $50 (for updates every five minutes).
Many families that use the technology said they had not told their children that they were tracking them and didn't want them to find out, while others were uncomfortable talking publicly about the practice.
"Doing surveillance on your own child has its own stigma," said one father who has used GPS tracking on the car driven by his 17-year-old son since earlier this year.
Still, the father said the device has been helpful when trying to determine where his son had been and how fast he had been driving. The father said his son has already had two accidents, including one that totaled a car. After the second accident, he informed his son that the tracker would be installed in his car, an act that drew protest.
"But being the adult, I am liable for any activities that he does," the father said, noting some improvements in his son's driving. "As my father once explained to me, being a teenager is more like living in a totalitarian state than in a democracy."
Even without parents' installing some kind of tracking device, many newer cars already have factory-installed event data recorders. The information is not easily accessible to parents but has increasingly been used in serious crash investigations, while also triggering privacy debates.
A decidedly lower-tech option - the bad-driver bumper sticker - is yet another idea stolen from fleet managers.
A company called ReportMyTeen.com allows parents to receive e-mails if other drivers witness poor driving and report it to a toll-free hot line. The message is routed as an audio file, so parents can hear the actual complaint. With a 12-month contract, the service costs $47.
Electronic toll payments have also created another option for creative parents who want to track their children's movements. "Any I-PASS customer can go online and view how their I-PASS is being used," said Joelle McGinnis, an Illinois State Toll Highway Authority spokeswoman.
Others, meanwhile, are using technology to help teens improve their driving habits, especially during their most dangerous first few hundred hours on the road.
In the parking lot of a northeast Iowa high school, video highlights and other data are downloaded daily via wireless signals from cars driven by a group of 25 teens who have volunteered for a University of Iowa research program.
As part of the study, the teens have had a small camera installed behind their rear-view mirrors. The camera is always on, constantly recording like a TiVo box.
The video is only stored permanently if the car experiences G-forces beyond a preset limit, a condition triggered by excessive acceleration, deceleration or taking a curve too fast. When the limits are exceeded, 10 seconds of video is stored from before and after the incident.
Although the machine cannot detect a gradual speed increase, its manufacturers say most speeding will trigger the recorder because there tends to be braking or jarring that will reach the G-force limit.
"We've been quite surprised at the results we have seen so far," said Daniel McGehee, director of the University of Iowa's Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Division.
After the video and data are downloaded, McGehee and his fellow researchers send a compact disc weekly to parents who are asked to review with their children any recorded events.
Since the project was started in March, McGehee said, seat belt usage has grown to nearly 100 percent for participants, significantly higher than the national norm.
The project is set to run for 14 months. A second effort focusing on urban and suburban teens is to start in the Minneapolis area in January.
McGehee said that roughly two-thirds of the teens in the trial rarely drive aggressively enough to trigger the camera. Among the remainder of the group, he said, the cameras have helped reduce risky behavior by about 90 percent.
More study is needed, but McGehee suspects that the cameras and more parental involvement will prove to be significantly more effective than "tattletale" technology such as GPS trackers.
"It takes a pretty motivated parent to look at that data and track the driving," he said. "But with the video, it's really clear what has just occurred."
The cameras come from San Diego-based DriveCam Inc., which hopes to start selling the service soon to parents nationwide.
The company already has more than 35,000 cameras installed in commercial vehicles, where it claims installations typically help cut crashes in half because drivers know their boss might be watching.
Rusty Weiss, a DriveCam executive, expects the service will run about $60 a month, not including installation and some other costs. Plans call for the video to be transmitted through cellular networks to a central server where parents could log on and view incidents, or determine whether their teen has purposefully disabled the recorder.
"If you want to change teen behavior, you have to work with the parents as well and help them coach their teens more effectively," Weiss said. "It puts the trigger in control of the teenager, and pretty soon they stop triggering it."
Max Donath, director of the University of Minnesota's Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute, said there are many other technologies in the pipeline that could help make teens safer drivers.
One that he would most like to see is a system that would prevent a car from being started if the driver is not wearing a seat belt, something that could be easily and inexpensively added since much of the detection system is already built into cars.
"That is much better done by the auto manufacturers than by the after-market," he said. "It would cost less than 10 cents to add a seat-belt ignition interlock."
Donath said another technology that is being studied mostly in Europe is something called "intelligent speed adaptation" that would limit a car from driving in excess of the speed limit.
"This is not that far out at all," he said. "The building blocks are all there."
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© 2006, Chicago Tribune Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.