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Status Report, Vol. 44, No. 5 | SPECIAL ISSUE: TEENAGE DRIVERS | May 7, 2009 Subscribe

Monitoring devices let parents supervise new drivers more closely

When parents are watching, their teenage children drive differently than when they're alone or with friends. Unsupervised teens take more risks behind the wheel. A new Institute study indicates that equipping the cars teens drive with in-vehicle monitoring devices can help reduce these risks by giving feedback about driving behavior to both teenagers and their parents.

Yet the devices may turn out to be tough sells not only to the beginning drivers but even to their parents, and over time the teens may become less cautious if they think their parents aren't paying attention. A companion survey indicates that most parents think the technology helps their kids be safer drivers.

"Monitoring devices can help reduce teens' risky driving," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research, "and perhaps ease some of the worry parents face when their kids start to drive. Our findings also suggest that technology can't substitute for parents getting involved."

Teenage drivers' crash risk is consistently higher than the risk in any other age group (see "Good news about teen drivers: Crashes continue to fall," June 15, 2007). One proven way to reduce this risk is through strong graduated licensing laws. Another potential way is to use technologies to monitor driving and flag risky behavior like speeding, aggressive driving, and nonuse of belts. Some of these gadgets can pinpoint a vehicle's location and even let parents dial directly into the car if an alert sounds. Several insurers offer such devices to policyholders with teen drivers.

"When I'm with her my daughter drives differently than when she's with her friends," says Kathy Paxton, mom of a teenager who participated in the study that monitored 16-and 17-year-old drivers in the suburban Washington, D.C., area during a 24-week period.

"You really don't know how they're driving until you have a monitor in their car. It was an eye opener. I would love to have my other daughter who's going to be driving soon have it in her car."

Vehicles driven by the 84 teens in the study were outfitted with a black box that continuously monitored their driving. The unit had global positioning system capabilities plus a satellite modem to transmit data to a central processing center. The device recorded driving-specific data but no video or sound. It detected when drivers braked sharply or accelerated suddenly, didn't use belts, and exceeded speed limits.

Data were posted on a secure website for parents to review.

Study groups

Participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups. Drivers in groups 1 and 2 heard audible alerts for risky maneuvers. A short, low-pitched buzz sounded for sudden braking and acceleration. A continuous low-pitched buzz sounded when the belt wasn't buckled and stopped only when it was fastened.

Speeding triggered a single beep at 2.5 mph over the posted limit, followed by continuous beeps at increasing pitch and frequency when the teenage drivers exceeded the limit by more than 10 mph. The alerts were designed to be louder than the radio and the surrounding traffic.

For drivers in group 1, information about triggering events immediately was reported to the website for parents' inspection. Teenagers in group 2 could correct their driving within 20 seconds of an alarm to avoid having the violation reported to their parents. Researchers discovered late in the study that the conditional notification mode never had been activated, though the teen drivers and their parents in this group weren't aware of the glitch.

There were no in-vehicle alerts for drivers in group 3, just website notification. Group 4 was a control group with monitoring but no alert or web notification.

Although parents of newly licensed drivers in a previous Institute survey said they wanted to know more about their teens' unsupervised driving (see "Parents don't always choose safest vehicles for their teens," June 15, 2007), researchers had trouble recruiting families for the monitoring project. Teens had to be the primary drivers of the monitored vehicles, and their parents had to have web access.

"At first it was tough finding families willing to participate until we added a $500 payment to compensate them for their time," McCartt says. "Part of the problem may be that the monitoring technology is relatively new, so parents and teens weren't familiar with it. Their reluctance also signals that more widespread use of these devices may turn out to be a tough sell."

Once the devices were in 31 vehicles, researchers noted that only a handful of parents visited the website. This prompted the Institute's study coordinator to decide to send short driving report cards every 2-3 weeks to the parents of the next teens who got devices. These reports were designed with the assumption that parents would go to the website for more details about their teenagers' risky driving. However, parents receiving the reports used the website even less frequently than those in the initial group.

Belt use reminders

Many teens don't use safety belts, despite the lifesaving benefits. About half of 16- and 17-year-old drivers killed in crashes in 2007 weren't belted. Monitoring devices can help, the researchers found. At 94 percent, belt use among teens in the study already was high, and the few holdouts gave in and buckled up when the continuous buzz sounded. Belt use improved even among teens in the web-access-only group. Similar effects have been observed among drivers of all ages in studies of belt reminders that chime or buzz for extended intervals when drivers don't use belts (see "Belt reminders in Hondas are persuading motorists to buckle up," June 13, 2006).

Stops and starts

Sudden braking and abrupt acceleration can signal driver risk-taking or inattentiveness. In the study, rates of sudden stops and starts fell among teenagers in the monitoring groups relative to the control group, especially in vehicles with audible alerts, but the differences were statistically significant only for teens in group 1 with immediate website notification. Alerts were short and not particularly annoying.

The effects were greater among teens whose parents received periodic report cards.

Driving faster than the posted speed limit was the most prevalent risky behavior. At first, speeding more than 10 mph above the limit sharply declined among teens in the 2 groups with alerts in their vehicles, but then the rates of speeding began to rise over time. Instances of speeding more than 10 mph over the posted limit were reduced significantly only when alarms sounded in the vehicles, speed-related report cards were emailed to parents, and the teenage drivers had a chance to cancel the report cards by slowing down.

Most of the teen drivers increasingly broke speed limits over time, even though violations of more than 10 mph were posted to the web for parents to see. This may be because drivers grew more at ease behind the wheel and on the roads they traveled, McCartt says. It also could be because during the study many teenagers completed the probationary period for graduated licensing, so restrictions on young passengers were lifted. Teen drivers are more likely to take risks when they're out with other teens.

Risky behavior consistently declined among teens in the second monitoring group with driving report cards. Once these teens heard in-vehicle alerts, they believed they could correct their behavior before the system tipped off their parents. Teens in the first in-vehicle alarm group had less incentive to change their behavior. By the time they heard an alarm it was too late to prevent parental notification and improve their driving report card.

What parents and teenagers think

When monitoring ended, the researchers interviewed parents and teen drivers separately about their experiences. Ninety-eight percent of the parents said they'd recommend the monitoring device to other parents. When asked what they most wanted to know about their teenager's driving, parents most often said speeding (81 percent).

"I'd recommend it, especially for new drivers, for the oversight as well as the ability it gives parents to have conversations with [their children] about what might have been going on in the car" to trigger a web alert, says David Heyman, a Maryland father whose son participated in the study.

Teens felt the device made them better drivers. Eighty-three percent in the 2 in-vehicle alert groups and 81 percent in the web-access-only group thought the device was effective. More than half in each alert group described the beeps and buzzes as annoying, and the majority were happy when the unit was removed.

"It actually overall helped me to control my aggressive driving," says Tyler Kellogg, an Arlington, Virginia, teenager. "It gave me an indication of what I was doing wrong. I slowed down when I heard" an alarm. Still, he says he found the unit "annoying after a while."

The most effective monitoring system, parents said, would combine in-vehicle alerts with immediate parental notification. Teenagers preferred conditional notification. Many parents found the emailed driver report cards more useful and convenient than the website.

Forty-three percent of parents reported having difficulties with the site, maybe because it wasn't as user-friendly as it could have been and pages sometimes took too long to load. Or, as McCartt points out, busy parents had other priorities. Maybe they also trusted researchers to let them know about any serious infractions.

As for privacy, some parents say it's not a real concern. "I don't think privacy is quite the issue it once was," Heyman says. "Teenagers are used to there being a little bit of monitoring and oversight" of things like cellphone use and texting.

Mom and Dad still hold the keys

Parents are big influencers of their kids' behavior. The more involved they are, the less likely kids are to engage in all types of risky activities associated with the teen years. Even the most sophisticated technology isn't going to have much of an effect if parents and teenagers don't talk about their driving.

"Aside from belt use, alarms alone aren't enough to change the risky way some teens drive," McCartt says. "It's tough to convince them not to speed, brake hard, and accelerate too quickly. Some teens in our study never got this message, but the group who believed they could correct their behavior before their parents found out did curb risk-taking as long as the devices were in their cars. It's obvious that parents need to act as driving coaches as well as rule enforcers. Kids know when Mom and Dad aren't looking. If their actions have no consequences, they have little incentive to play it safe, even when a black box records them."

Types of monitoring devices

A variety of systems are available to allow parents to monitor teen drivers.

Insurers help parents track teens

Some insurers provide free or discounted monitoring devices to policyholders with teen drivers.

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