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Matt Brady
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Lisa Floreancig
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Sweet Sixteen and Under Surveillance

Global Positioning Systems Track Teen Drivers and Provide Parents’ Peace of Mind

By Lindsay Robison

Sleepless nights. Parents have plenty of them, especially in the beginning when they’re up every few hours for late-night – or early-morning – feedings or to peek in on their little ones sleeping soundly. These nights might calm down a bit when the babies start sleeping through the night and grow into toddlers, elementary age – save for a few nights of making sure there are no monsters in the closet – and into their ‘tweens. But then they hit 15 and 16 … and they’re asking for mom’s and dad’s car keys.

It’s an experience for which almost every teen can’t wait. Whether or not their dreams of a shiny, gift-wrapped car delivered on their sixteenth birthdays are realities, most are just excited to get behind the wheel, in whatever form it may come. As excited as teens are for that new taste of freedom, parents are equally as apprehensive. It is no wonder parents lose sleep. Motor vehicle crashes rank No. 1 in the leading causes of death among young people ages 15 to 20. In 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, almost 3,500 drivers in that age group lost their lives in crashes and another 281,000 were injured.

No parent wants to be one of the more than half million to receive the late-night phone call or knock on the door with news that his or her child has been involved in an accident.

“I mean you’re putting your kid out on the streets with a 7,000-pound weapon,” says Ginny Elder of South Lake, Texas, and mom of a 17-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter. “You worry about them, but you also worry about the other drivers.”

So tonight it wouldn’t be surprising to see countless American parents sleeping on the couch, tossing and turning, or waiting by the phone until they hear the sounds of their teens pulling into the driveway or garage safely for the night.

But thanks to some fairly old technology – it’s been around for about 15 years – being used in a new way, parents no longer have to wait and wonder whether their children are safe. In fact, mom and dad can know exactly where their son or daughter is and how fast he or she is traveling.

Through The Lens

GPS tracking isn’t the only technological device that allows parents to check in on their teenagers while in the driver’s seats. DriveCam has been working in conjunction with American Family Insurance and its Teen Safe Driver Program to offer video systems that capture teenagers’ driving habits.

A camera system is affixed to the windshield close to the rearview mirror, with one camera pointing toward the roadway to see what the driver sees and another pointing into the driver’s compartment to show how he or she reacts to what they see.

“The system has what could be described as a motion detector,” Steve Whitmer of American Family says. “It is triggered by certain movements of the car. So if the car swerves strongly or stops suddenly, it triggers the system to capture the previous 10 seconds of sights and sounds and the following 10 seconds of sights and sounds.”

Cellular technology sends the recordings back to DriveCam. Parents can then log onto the Teen Safe Driver website to access the video as well as a driving report card and coaching tips for improving teens’ driving habits.

“Sometimes it shows them taking responsible action to avoid something that is going on in the street; sometimes it shows that they might be distracted by something going on in the car; and sometimes it might just show that they are building skills and maybe took a corner too fast or didn’t anticipate having to stop from some situation developing in the road ahead of them,” Whitmer says. “It’s a dangerous time in their lives, and we believe Teen Safe Driver is very valuable in helping parents get their young drivers through that dangerous period.”

Global positioning technology can be used for all kinds of purposes, from NASA or television satellites to giving people directions to their favorite restaurants or getting them back to their favorite fishing spots. But the GPS technology being used by companies such as MobileTeenGPS and Youth Driving Safe has been used for years in the commercial fleet business to track vehicles out on the road, and now these companies offer the same luxury to parents.

How it works is a GPS tracking device is installed in the teen’s vehicle. Software is downloaded onto a personal computer, which allows parents to log onto the website of the company from which they bought the system and locate the vehicle. Parents can then see exactly where the vehicle is, if it is moving, what direction it is headed, and how fast it is traveling. Parents can set it up so they receive text messages or e-mails when their teen’s vehicle exceeds a certain speed or leaves a certain area. Parents can even call an 800 number that will inform them of the vehicle’s location. Depending upon how much money parents want to spend, even more can be done with these systems. Some systems allow parents to remotely lock and unlock the vehicle’s doors, flash the lights and honk the horn, and disable the ignition.

This technology may seem very “Big Brother” to some and it may even be a little bit scary if used in the wrong way, but the people at MobileTeenGPS and Youth Driving Safe are passionate about keeping kids safe, especially when statistics show that losing control of a vehicle at excessive speed is how many fatal crashes occur.

“The most important reason – the pinnacle, the apex – why we think that teens and parents need this kind of technology is it keeps young drivers safe and out of the statistics,” says Dave Flower, national business director for MobileTeenGPS. And Flower, probably like most other people if they were asked, wants to keep kids out of the statistics because they are valuable assets to the future, in addition to being loved.

It’s difficult for parents to watch their teens putting a key in the ignition and pulling away down the street for the first time. “I was really nervous about putting Keith in a car,” Lisa Owens of McKinney, Texas, says of her 16-year-old son who has been driving solo since July 2007. “Keith is very responsible and we trust him completely, but I am probably a little overprotective and it scared me.

“I remember the first day I watched him pull out of the driveway by himself to drive to morning workout. He left the driveway and I hit the computer … and I checked it until I saw ‘ignition off’ when he stopped in the parking lot. It was really scary to let him go, but knowing that he made it safely to his destination made me feel better,” she says.

Owens has the right to be nervous. It’s just a plain fact that teenage drivers are more at risk of being in an accident, partly because they are more prone to engage in risky behavior. A National Institutes of Health study proved that a young person’s brain isn’t fully developed until almost age 25, especially the part that is responsible for making judgments and assessing risk. Therefore, it’s not that a teen isn’t responsible, it’s just that teen drivers aren’t as aware of their surroundings, nor do they completely comprehend the magnitude of responsibility driving has, and they may need a little more supervision.

Flower believes the tracking devices give parents an extended opportunity to monitor and coach their children’s driving behaviors without having to be in the car.

“It’s a big deterrent because I can check it anywhere in the country,” says Elder, whose son John has been driving with the Youth Driving Safe device for almost two years now. “If he exceeds the speed limit, it e-mails me; if he’s not where he’s supposed to be, I can start honking the horn to get his attention; if I call his cell phone and he doesn’t call me back, I go immediately to the GPS and start honking the car’s horn…. It doesn’t make you so cool and hip if your mom can control your car, but it works; it’s a deterrent.”

In addition to being a deterrent, it can also be a conversation piece that allows parents to talk to their children about their driving habits and make them more aware of what is going on around them.

Angela Williamson of Marietta, Georgia, had a MobileTeenGPS device installed on her son Saywer’s truck before he got his license. Although she knows he’s a good kid, she says it gives her peace of mind. “He has never really done anything we consider to be outrageously wrong,” she says, “and I think the system has made him more aware of driving and taught him to pay more attention. Once the system gets taken out he may be a speeder, but hopefully it’ll always make him recognize he has to stay on the speed limit and follow the rules. I think he’s a better driver than a lot of his friends because of it.” Many of his friends, at 17, have already lost their licenses because of too many speeding violations.

Whether the tracking devices make teens more aware of speed limits and rules, it is not yet known. Too few people are using these devices to conduct a study that could be considered statistically significant, so insurance companies and GPS companies like Flower’s and Padden’s want to make parents aware that the technology exists and get them to accept it as part of their children’s driving experiences.

“Anything a parent can do to increase the chances that their child will make it to 17 is good,” says Carolyn Gorman, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute media office. “One of the things we say in this industry is that your first year of driving is the most dangerous year of your life. Any tool that you can give to parents so that they can take a great role in their child’s first years of driving is good.”

Several insurance companies have seen the potential in these systems and have begun pilot programs, offering the technology at little or no cost to policyholders with teenage drivers. AIG has partnered with MobileTeenGPS, and Youth Driving Safe has been in talks with large national insurers as well. But it is still a matter of getting the word out about the technology and getting more parents, and in some aspects, teens, to sign up.

“I still think there’s a knowledge gap out there,” says John Cantwell, vice president of underwriting and product development at AIG. “But I think it will slowly start to get through to customers as they understand that this is something they ought to look into. One of the comments we occasionally get is ‘Well, I trust my child so I wouldn’t want to do this.’ And our response is ‘It’s not really a matter of trust; it is a matter of reality that young drivers are inexperienced, and we view this as a coaching tool.’ I remember being that age, and I was a good kid and a good student, but sometimes young drivers do dumb things and make bad choices. It’s not that the kids are bad and you don’t trust them, it’s a matter of seeing that and giving that feedback back to them.”

Another thing parents worry about is how these devices might affect their insurance rates, especially if they receive numerous speeding alerts. This worry is understandable when statistics show that rates increase anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent or more by adding a teen to an auto insurance policy. But few, if any, insurance companies are using these devices in ways that affect rates, punitive or otherwise.

“We don’t get the data. We don’t use the data. It doesn’t impact rates,” Cantwell says. “You could get speed alerts all day long and we wouldn’t know about it. Even if we did, we wouldn’t use it. It involves rate filings and all kinds of things. That’s where the line gets crossed, I think. People have a fear of it; we want to make sure that the fear is not true. The service is really for the customer.”

And the customers, parents at least, who do use it seem to love it.

Once they have the device, they want to keep it. MobileTeenGPS has a dropout rate of about 1 percent. Flower says that once many parents try it, even if they were skeptical about it at first, you wouldn’t be able to get it out of their hands after a few weeks even if you tried. “We call it somewhat of an addictive quality,” Flower says. “To know that my daughter is safe at her part-time job at 4 o’clock and I’m at work, even though I didn’t think she was in trouble or in danger, it’s just nice to get that message. It makes me feel good as a dad to know, ‘Hey, she’s safe.’”

“I will always worry about him when he is not with me,” Lisa Owens says of her son Keith. “However, having the system in place has allowed me to see what a responsible driver Keith is, and has helped me relax when he leaves the house.”

For those parents of teens who are upset about them knowing where they are at all times, and many parents experience this, Flower and Padden suggest making it a part of an understanding of the privilege of driving. In most cases, it is the parents who foot the bill for the vehicle and the insurance, and if the teen has a good driving record, parents can often receive discounts on their insurance premiums.

Even though most insurance carriers don’t offer rate discounts to customers using the GPS devices, those at Youth Driving Safe and MobileTeenGPS hope it will come to that. Padden of Youth Driving Safe hopes that one day companies will look at a teen’s driving history report and give discounts if he or she has a good driving record. But for this to happen, the benefits of these tracking devices regarding crash reductions and lives and money saved are going to have to be shown in statistically significant studies – some of which are in the works.

“Guess what’s going to happen when all this works out with the insurance companies and their customers?” Flower asks. “Kids’ lives are going to be saved. That’s my passion….” He thinks that even if insurance companies decide to use speed alerts against those who receive them, the benefit of keeping teen drivers safe will outweigh the cost of an increased premium.

Discount or not, many parents are willing to pay the cost – a few hundred dollars for the device, if there isn’t an offer from their insurance companies, and about a dollar per day for the monitoring, “which is a whole lot less than a Starbucks,” says Padden.

“It’s the best investment I’ve ever made,” Elder says. “It’s worth every penny and then some … for peace of mind. It’s a good value.”

Williamson agrees: “It’s not expensive, and the benefits outweigh the costs tremendously. I think that’s what you’ve got to look at in every situation. I know a mother of a boy who lost his life. She’s told me numerous times that if she’d known about it and gotten it for him they could have avoided the situation they’re in.”