Parents now monitor teen drivers with GPS-based technology

12:33 AM, Oct 20, 2012   |    comments
Richard Pilat of Parma, Ohio, says his 18-year-old daughter, Jennifer is a better driver since an IntelliDrive monitoring system was installed in her car (Photo: Tim Harrison, USA TODAY)
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(USA TODAY) -- When Rich Pilat's daughter, Jennifer, was 16 and just starting to drive on her own, he wanted to install a device in her car that would monitor her driving activity and allow him to track where she went -- along with whether she had done any sudden braking or had been speeding.

It was a tough sell, says Pilat, 47, an independent insurance agent in the Cleveland area. "At first, she was absolutely against the idea," he says.

Then he told her that the insurance-company-provided device -- designed to track the mileage of low-mileage customers, who pay lower rates -- would mean a sharp reduction in her share of the monthly premiums.

"I told her, imagine cutting your share in half. I'll give you the whole discount," Pilat says. "That was enough motivation for her to say OK."

He says he thinks the device helped make Jennifer a safer, more responsible driver; she has had no wrecks or citations since the device was installed two years ago.

A wide variety of GPS-based vehicle monitoring options is available to parents of teen drivers. They range from smartphone apps that alert parents when their children are driving faster than a preset speed to devices such as the one used by Pilat. They either plug into the vehicle's onboard diagnostic computer or are hard-wired in the automobile by a professional.

A 2009 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of 84 16- and 17-year-old drivers in the Washington, D.C., area found that teens in vehicles equipped with these types of monitoring devices drove differently, taking fewer risks behind the wheel than unsupervised teens.

Many insurance carriers, including The Travelers that Pilat uses, offer discounts for consumers with permanently installed devices.

"It's a terrific method to help parents have good and effective coaching with their teenagers around safe driving," says Greg Toczydlowski, president of Travelers Personal Insurance.

Travelers' mileage-based discount program, called IntelliDrive, uses a palm-size device that fits into a diagnostic port, usually under the steering wheel in vehicles made since 1996. The program, which features a secure website where parents can view driving data and history, is currently available in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Ohio, Oregon and Virginia, Toczydlowski says.

AT&T is developing Driving Safety, a plug-in device that monitors driving behavior such as speeding, braking and red-light running and remotely provides real-time information to parents on a vehicle's diagnostics -- such as tire pressure or when the engine light comes on -- and allows them to restrict a driver's cellphone use.

"AT&T is working across environments and devices to create holistic, cloud-based services that deliver the next generation of connected features," says Mazin Gilbert, associate vice president for technical research at AT&T Labs.

Woodrow Hartzog, a privacy expert and assistant professor of law at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., says parents considering using such technology should make their decision "deliberately rather than haphazardly."

"I tend to draw comparisons between the parental use of monitoring technology for driving with the parental monitoring of their children's use of social networking," Hartzog says. "Young adults are notoriously protective of their privacy. I think the best way to approach the situation is to have a conversation with them if you want to use the technology. It would set a dangerous precedent to employ this technology without letting the children know."

Hartzog says he has several concerns when the devices are used in conjunction with an insurer, or when the information collected is stored.

"Is it going to negatively affect my rates?" Hartzog says. "How else is the information going to be used? Who else is going to have access to this information?

"That also applies if you are using an Internet service. Is the information being stored in the cloud somewhere?"

Pilat says that no privacy concerns arose with Jennifer. He says he was initially drawn to IntelliDrive because of the savings -- about 25% annually. "I was interested in the discount," he says. "I told her, I don't intend to be watching you. I'm not a helicopter parent. If I didn't trust you, you wouldn't have my car."

He says that the device did spark some precautionary conversations with Jennifer after he and his wife, Diane, noted instances where Jennifer's maximum speed was getting a little faster on a few trips. "It brought us together to have the conversation about it, so I could say, I notice your top speed is creeping up a little bit. You should probably watch your step a little bit."

Pilat says he thinks the device helped Jennifer mature as a driver, especially when she had other teens in the car. "She would always tell us if her plans were changing because she knew we would be able to tell if the car strayed from where she was supposed to be," he says.

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