Should You Spy On Your Teen Driver?

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Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. Techno-parenting might save your novice driver’s life.

Worried about putting your teenage son or daughter behind the wheel? You should be.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States. Based on miles driven, teen drivers are three times as likely to be in fatal crashes as drivers age 20 and older.

Fortunately, there’s an app for that. Or, rather, a whole range of technology that allows parents to:

  • Monitor a teen’s day-to-day driving.
  • Shut down incoming calls and texts.
  • Prevent him or her from going over a certain speed.
  • Track whereabouts (including areas where they’re not supposed to be).
  • Restrict the audio system to a certain level.

Some of these devices can be tracked in real time, by the parents. Others will send regular e-reports on bad behavior. You might even save money on your auto insurance by installing one of these products.

The bad news? Your kid might feel spied upon. The good news? Techno-parenting could save his life.

Knowing that he’s being monitored should reduce auto shenanigans, and if it doesn’t, you’ll have the evidence necessary to justify an appropriate punishment. (Hint: Having to take the bus to school is practically life-ending. It’s likely your daughter or son will be more careful once the car keys are returned.)

Before you start, it’s important to set ground rules for driving: how far, how fast, where to and with whom. Write this down and have your teen sign it so there can be no misunderstandings later on.

A blog called Parenting Teen Drivers has two driving contracts (short and long) that you can download for free and customize if necessary to fit your family’s rules. Now your teen is fully aware of those rules, including the fact that you’re keeping an eye on what he does.

Driven to distraction?

Sometimes that’s a literal eye, through cameras. A product called DriveCam kicks in when triggered by erratic movements such as hard braking or rapid acceleration. Parents get weekly reports of their teens’ driving records. At least one company, American Family Insurance, offers the DriveCam to customers free for the first year as part of its Teen Safe Driver program.

Or just buy a camera and install it yourself. According to this article on, a basic model will run you about $100; twice that amount will buy a dual-camera setup that produces high-definition results in the vehicle and outside it, even in total darkness. For about $300 you get all that plus a GPS hookup, “which logs data for review on a PC.”

For-a-fee monitoring can be had from OnStar or from cellphone companies. For example, Verizon’s Diagnostics by Delphi lets you set boundaries for your young driver, e.g., “no driving further than 20 miles from home.” Youngsters who stray trigger email alerts; parents also are notified if their kids drive faster than 75 miles per hour.

Sometimes the monitoring is part of the auto package. Ford’s MyKey technology comes standard on most models and includes tools such as letting parents limit top speeds, mute the radio until seat belts are buckled, and keep the radio at a certain volume while the vehicle is moving.

The Blue Link telematics system available on some Hyundai models lets parents set speed limits and “geo-fence” boundaries. It will also let you know if your kid’s vehicle was driven after her curfew while you were attending the company Christmas party. These options are also available on the Mercedes-Benz mbrace2 telematics system, standard on most models.

And if you just want to know where your teen is at any given time? A simple (and free!) way to do this is with a cellphone finder app such as Find My iPhone or Locate My Droid. These devices let you determine that your son’s phone was not at school at 8 a.m., or that your daughter is actually at a shopping mall instead of studying at a friend’s house. Busted!

Moving way too fast

Texting and driving, a potentially deadly combination, is becoming more common. A 2012 study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute notes that 26 percent of teen drivers admit to reading or sending texts every time they drive. In fact, 20 percent of them say they indulge in “multimessage text conversations” while behind the wheel.

Swerves or sudden braking that result from texting-related inattention would trigger a DriveCam; having your own dual-camera system would monitor Junior’s behavior as well. Or you could opt for apps like Canary or DriveScribe, which won’t let texts be sent or received while a car is in motion.

Speeding also needs to be taken seriously. It’s one of the biggest factors in fatal teen crashes, according to a 2013 report from the Governors’ Highway Safety Association. Excessive speed was implicated in one-third of all such crashes in 2011.

Some of the devices noted above will monitor speeds and provide a report to parents. They may also tattle on teens with regard to behaviors such as swerving and extreme braking, both of which can indicate careless lane changes or inattention. Sure, they can also indicate a dog running into the road, but if they happen four or five times during a single trip, it’s time for you and Junior to have a talk.

Before you do, however, think about your own driving habits. The GHSA recently released a new report on distracted teen drivers. Among other things, it notes the ways that parents can influence their children’s behavior.

“If a parent uses an electronic device, applies makeup, eats or engages in some other distracting behavior while driving, there’s a good bet his or her teen will do so once licensed,” the authors wrote.

Has your teen grown up watching you stuff down an Egg McMuffin and coffee during morning carpool duty? How often do you make calls from the road without using a hands-free device? Has there been a “just this once” text message sent or received while young eyes watched from the back seat?

(I once saw a Seattle bus driver texting. He tried to talk me out of reporting him to the city transit authority on the grounds that “it was an emergency.” You know what else would have been an emergency? A bus accident!)

Prepare to ’fess up to your own misdeeds when writing up that driving contract for your teenager. It wouldn’t hurt to agree to sign one yourself, so your kid can keep you honest. (And maybe alive.)

‘The novice behind the wheel’

Risky behaviors like speeding and texting get all the press. The new report from the GHSA, however, notes that most crashes are the result of a simple lack of practice.

“The novice behind the wheel does not have the skills or experience needed to recognize a hazard and take corrective action,” study authors wrote.

That’s another way technology can help. Suppose a device indicates your son drove up to 60 miles an hour during yesterday’s rainstorm. You have a chance to explain why driving fast on a wet road is a bad idea for drivers of any age.

Techno-parenting probably won’t go over well. You’ll likely hear something along the lines of, “I’m 17 years old! Why don’t you trust me to make good choices?”

It’s not about trust, but rather about human nature. If you’ve ever taken a cellphone call without pulling over, you understand the impulse to stay in touch, even though you also know it’s a really bad idea.

Resolve to do better as a road role model and hold that line where your kids are concerned, no matter how loudly they howl. Your job isn’t to be their best friend but to keep them safe.

Dale Wisely of the Parenting Teen Drivers blog thinks parents should require that signed contract before the child can even get a learner’s permit. And if your kid balks at signing a contract that specifies a dashboard cam or no-texts-allowed app? Then he doesn’t get to drive any car you own. Period.

“Let’s be blunt. Among other things, what is at stake here is knowing that you have done all you can reasonably do to avoid burying your own child,” Wisely says.

Readers: Have you monitored your teen’s driving or were you yourself monitored? How did that turn out? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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