Monday, June 23, 2008

Observing your teenager's driving habits by remote

Stephanie Wade, a Peck, Kan., mother of six, didn't make her children wear seat belts in the car when they were younger. So years later, it was difficult to persuade her 16-year-old daughter Kelsie to wear one when she got her driver's license in November.

To police her child, Ms. Wade in January had a video camera installed in plain view in Kelsie's car. The camera, made by DriveCam Inc., records both the inside of a car and the view outside through the windshield. Whenever the vehicle makes a sudden move, the camera wirelessly transmits a digital recording to DriveCam's central-monitoring station, where it's analyzed and emailed to her parents within 24 hours. DriveCam also sends a weekly report rating the teen's driving and safety skills.

Using DriveCam's service, Ms. Wade saw that her daughter wasn't wearing her seat belt. "We started saying, 'Kelsie, you have to be buckled and anybody in the car has to be buckled,' " says Ms. Wade, 43. Kelsie complied -- a move that later may have saved her life.

DriveCam's $900-a-year camera and one-year monitoring contract were paid for by the Wades' car-insurance company -- an incentive increasingly offered by insurers to attract younger drivers. But it's also one of several new tools that help parents keep track of teenage drivers.

In the past, parents could only guess -- and worry -- about what their teens were doing behind the wheel. But the rapid advance of inexpensive camera and recording technologies -- spurred in part by Internet cameras, digital cameras and cellphones -- has given parents more control over their kids when they drive. Part of this is spurred by insurance companies, which offer discounts on teen-monitoring systems to woo young drivers and their parents.

The technologies are proliferating as the number of teenage and young-adult drivers in the U.S. increases. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there were 13 million drivers between 15 and 20 years old on the road in 2006. And that year, 3,490 young drivers died, making vehicle crashes the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 20 in the U.S.
A camera mounted on a rear-view mirror captured a young driver on her cellphone just before she lost control of her car and drove into a ditch. She wasn't seriously hurt.

Like DriveCam, BrickHouse Security, a unit of BrickHouse Electronics LLC, offers a recording package to families with teen drivers. A $400 camera with LCD playback screen is clipped to the rear-view mirror to record the view outside through the windshield. It has an input port for a second camera, which parents can use to record what's happening inside the car. The camera records roughly two hours of high-resolution video on a standard 2-gigabyte memory card. There is no central monitoring service. Instead, parents can review the video on the LCD screen in the car or access the memory card on a personal computer. (Also available is a $100 camera that records in a lesser quality and doesn't come with an LCD screen.)

Last May, OBS Inc., a Colorado-based mobile surveillance company, launched the HD1, a video-camera system for cars, aimed in part at parents with teenagers. The HD1, which starts at $965, works like a digital-video recorder, filming everything that goes on in and around the car with as many as four cameras. Parents can remove the hard drive from the system using a key and connect it to their television or PC to view the video.

BrickHouse and Alltrack USA also offer GPS tracking features that can let parents know where their teens are driving. Using the devices, the car location and the speed at which it is moving is tracked by a satellite and then transmitted to a secure Web site parents can view.

Market Still Small

Despite the number of products available, the market is still relatively small. Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with market researcher Gartner Inc., says less than 1% of U.S. vehicle owners install camera systems in the car. He cites the high cost of some of these systems and the potential spying concerns as the reasons parents may be holding off, and adds that few parents have the time to analyze a long driving video.

And using teen-tracking technology may cause some tension between parents and their kids.

Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouse Security, says his customers tell him that they almost always install the company's GPS product covertly, without the teenager's knowledge.

Mark Alexander, a consulting engineer in Tyler, Texas, secretly installed a GPS system from BrickHouse on his son's car last fall, before the 18-year-old went off to boarding school in Chattanooga, Tenn., for his senior year. Installing the antenna for the system out of sight underneath the dashboard of the vehicle, Mr. Alexander was able to receive text messages every time his son, Reid, drove the car over 80 miles per hour or left the grounds of the boarding school. When he received a text message, Mr. Alexander says he called his son immediately in the car, warning him to slow down.

Mr. Alexander says his son was never able to figure out exactly how he kept tabs on his whereabouts. At one point, his son even disabled the OnStar in-vehicle diagnostics system in the car, thinking that was the culprit. Mr. Alexander eventually told his son about the GPS system over the holidays.

Mr. Alexander, 49, says that installing the system in the car improved his son's driving habits. He adds that he has no problem with bugging his kid's car without telling him how he did it. "Around my house, we have the golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rule...If you want my checkbook and my car with my name on it, these are my rules," he says.

Reid responds: "My dad knows me well enough to know that it is probably a good idea to know where I am at all times."

Matter of Trust

Karen Zager, a New York psychologist who specializes in parenting and relationship issues, says that trust is something that teenagers need to earn from parents over time. She suggests, however, that parents should start positively by giving their teens more freedom from the start and seeing how they handle it. Then they can scale back those freedoms if their kids misuse the responsibility.

Whether or not parents should use teen-tracking products like GPS, Dr. Zager says, is dependent on how trustworthy the parent thinks their children are. She adds that parents don't necessarily have to tell their kids how they are tracking them, but says the idea that they will be monitoring their teenagers should be something that is openly discussed.

"After the initial, 'I hate your guts. You are the worst parent to ever walk the face of the earth,' I think the idea would be that your child comes to respect that what you are doing is in the child's best interest," says Dr. Zager.

Ms. Wade, for one, says she was skeptical when she first heard about DriveCam because she knew it was spying on her daughter. Her daughter, Kelsie, agreed, fighting her mom on the camera at first. "I felt like my parents could always see me and know when I was doing something wrong," Kelsie says.

Two weeks after the camera was installed, Kelsie lost control of her car driving 55 mph on a dirt road and flipped over two times. The car was totaled. Kelsie, who was wearing her seat belt, emerged with only a slight case of whiplash. Today, Kelsie says that since the wreck, she doesn't mind the camera's being in the car, calling it a "good learning tool."

"At first I completely hated it, because it was this huge black thing underneath my mirror and every time I looked over there I would see it," she says. "But now I don't mind it."

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