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Virtual Backseat Parents | Keep teens straight on the road.

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Virtual Backseat Parents

The day they get a driver's license is a golden moment for teens—and for their parents, it's the day they start getting grey hair. Every time their teen is on the road, their worry meters spike. Now, thanks to technology, parents can virtually ride with their teen drivers wherever they go and monitor their driving behavior; and, in some instances, correct it. Through the magic of GPS, devices are on the market that can monitor a teen's driving speed, map their vehicle's position, monitor seatbelt use, unlock a door and even enforce curfew by turning off the car's ignition or locking the door.

Monitoring Parameters.

Parents set up monitoring parameters with companies offering the systems, and pay a monthly fee in addition to the cost of the unit and its installation. It is up to the parents whether they want to notify their teen that the device is monitoring their driving, although many companies advise parents to tell they kids about the device and set up a driving contract, which includes the parameters of the GPS system.

These systems can be accessed through the Internet for a real time read on where the teen is driving and how they are driving. Text messaging is also available when parents are away from a computer. When the driving parameters are breached, some systems honk the horn or flash the interior lights of the vehicle to let the young drivers know parental eyes are on them.

Because these systems can also be used to track a stolen car, they are eligible for insurance discounts, with some insurance companies offering from five (Fireman's Fund) to 25 (Liberty Mutual) percent discounts. Beginning in October 2007, Safeco Corporation offers a 15 percent discount on policies for customers in 39 states who sign up for its "Teensurance" program, which includes roadside assistance and the installation of a free GPS device that sets the maximum speed, distance and a curfew at which time the car's starter is disabled. AIG offers its MobileTEENGPS, a similar program, but without a discount.

Teenage Liability.

Teens all over the world become a motorized hazard when they get their license. It's worse in the U.S. where little preparation is rewarded with almost total highway freedom. Driver's licenses are inevitably the biggest killers of U.S. teens, claiming nearly 6,000 annually and injuring over 300,000 more each year. Add to minimal driving skills the distractions of cell phones, text messaging, peer passengers, and crowded schedules, and you have a thoroughly distracted driver.

Teens are lacking in driving skills simply by dent of experience, but they also are decision challenged by immature brains. "Advances in MRI technology have allowed us to prove the brain matures over a much longer period of time than was previously thought," said Dr. Jay Giedd, a leading neuroscientist based in Potomac, Md., specializing in teen brain development. "Areas involved in multi-tasking, impulse control and the ability to envision consequences—areas crucial for driving—are still developing until age 25."

A Connecticut study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) interviewed 16-year-old drivers who had been in non-fatal accidents, and found that teens were at fault in 68 percent of the crashes. Driver error caused by driver distraction was the main reason for the accidents. "Teenagers will be teenagers, and this study points to some of their behavior that leads to crashes," says Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research and an author of the study. "Now that we know the mistakes, we can better address how to reduce them. Driver education hasn't been shown to help, but maybe some of the new electronic technologies in vehicles can monitor behavior like speeding and help beginners learn some important driving lessons sooner than they otherwise would."

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