Hit the Brakes! GPS Mom Is Watching

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New big-brother devices for tracking teen drivers are meant to keep accidents and deaths among teen drives down. But are they too big-brother and not enough good-mother (or father)?

There’s nothing more liberating as a teen than being able to drive and take off on your own. A driver’s license is among the first signs of independence, yet the statistics show that many teens may not be ready for the responsibility. Drivers 16 years to 19 years are four times more likely than adults to be involved in fatal crashes. Teen passengers with peers at the wheel are also at risk. One in five 9th-to-11th graders has been involved in at least one crash in the past year.

National Teen Driver Safety Week, which runs through October 26th, is a week designated by Congress to highlight the importance of teaching teens safe driving techniques. It’s also a good time for parents to examine how they balance the need to trust their teens behind the wheel with the reality that the youngest drivers are among the most dangerous on the road.

Electronic devices that can notify drivers and — more importantly their families — when the person at the wheel makes mistakes, are increasingly popular ways for worried moms and dads to keep tabs on their teens. These technologies can now alert parents when their kids exceed their parents’ pre-programmed speed limit, for example, or brake or accelerate suddenly, either of which could indicate that the teen is in trouble. But how effective are these black boxes in preventing crashes? Or are they yet another example of intrusive, even counter-productive parenting?

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That depends, experts say, on how they are used. The devices, like IntelliDrive, eZoom, and others, vary in how they track teens on the road. Some beep if the driver exceeds a set speed limit. Some GPS-based systems can track kids’ locations and others give drivers real-time feedback on their performance and/or send alerts to parents. Some systems even allow a few seconds to let teens correct their mistake — such as driving too fast — and avoid parental notification. Still others, like DriveCam, film inside and outside the car but save the visual record only when there is a crash or other traffic incident. This data can be useful for educating teens about their weakest skills and helping to strengthen them. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found, for example, that driver error is the most common reason for crashes, accounting for 79% of accidents among teens. Young drivers most commonly don’t scan around them for possible hazards, tailgate because they drive too fast for road conditions, or are easily distracted, by cell phones and texts.

The key to translating all this data into safer-driving teens, however, is far more low-tech. No matter how the system works, studies found that the drivers with the best safety records are those who know their parents pay attention to the reports. “If no one’s looking at the data, it doesn’t do anything,” says Dr. Flaura Winston, a pediatrician and engineer who is director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

As in other areas of a teen’s life, she says, the core of safe teen driving is the parent-child relationship.  Whether or not parents install a device, they need to set rules, show love and concern, and work collaboratively with their kids. In her research, an “authoritative” parenting style, in which the parent says I’m monitoring your driving because I want to help you be a better driver,” produces safer drivers (That’s not to be confused with an “authoritarian” style, in which the parent says: Don’t speed. Don’t text. Don’t go with Susie.) Teens who said their parents had clear rules were half as likely to speed and twice as likely to use seat belts as those with uninvolved or permissive parents. The three critical elements of effective parenting to drivers are rules, monitoring, and support.  The support part is critical. “Do the parents really convey,” Winston says, “that they’re setting rules out of care and concern for the kids rather than trying to control them?”

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Recent studies, Winston says, show that training parents on better ways to discuss these issues with their children lowered error rates reported by the electronic devices by about a third. In this training, parents learned to tie their monitoring to how well the teen drove, allowing their teen more freedom if they were driving well and less if they made many errors. Rewarding safe driving is one way that parents can encourage good habits behind the wheel, she says, so recognizing good driving with more driving privileges such as gradually allowing them into riskier situations like driving at night or with passengers can be motivating for teens.

Technological monitoring devices can never replace parental guidance, but experts say they can have a role identifying teens’ most vulnerable areas as drivers. For instance, a teen’s driving risk shoots up when they start driving without an adult in the car. That’s where a black box device can be useful.  “We want the image of the parent in the kid’s head in the car,” says Winston. “With a monitoring device, you’re not exactly alone.” But even after kids are licensed, parents should continue to drive with them sometimes, to watch them and help them improve.

Teens, of course, aren’t as enamored of the devices as parents are. In a recent Israeli study, teens said they found the devices intrusive and limiting of their independence. But at the same time, they also reported that the electronic responses in the car were more objective than parents’ reactions or driving advice.

So on the whole, says, John Duffy, a Chicago area psychologist specializing in adolescents, they can be a useful tool, particularly for the first year of driving. “Teenagers have told me they are more cautious drivers due to parental monitoring,” which includes installation of driving monitors. But, he warns, as time passes, parents should be aware that they can over-do the surveillance in what is “effectively a show of no faith in your now experienced young driver.”

How do you know if you’re overdoing it? “There is a qualitative difference,’ Winston says, between wanting to know that your teen is driving well or just wanting to know where they’re going and who with.” Your teens, she says, will feel the difference in your attitude, and respond positively to your desire to, above all, keep them safe.

Parents and Teens can learn more at teendriversource.org