An Angel on the Shoulder of Your Teenage Driver (or at Least a Snitch)

Technological advances have made cars safer in many ways. There are systems that brake if a collision is imminent; warn the driver and take control if the car leaves the lane, and issue alerts when pedestrians are about to step into the road. To those, add systems that will warn parents if their teenager is misbehaving behind the wheel.

Many vehicle manufacturers now offer driving monitors as optional or standard equipment. Among them are Lexus, Volkswagen, General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Kia and Hyundai. Aftermarket devices are available as well.

If this technology had been available half a century ago, my parents would have been witness to late-night high-speed forays across the Illinois-Wisconsin state line in the family car.

Upon reviewing my electronic driving report card, Dad could have set range limits on how far I could travel, how loud I could crank up the radio, how fast I could drive and more. Disappointing to the driver, but safer for everyone.

A report on teenage driving by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that in 2018, 2,121 people were killed in accidents involving a driver 15 to 18 years old. The report said that the graduated driver licensing systems that have been adopted by all states had reduced crash risks, but motor vehicle crashes were still the leading cause of death for 15- to 18 year-olds in the United States. While the NHTSA report didn’t recommend driving monitors specifically, it did emphasize the importance of communication between parents and their teenagers who drive. And discussing a monitoring system’s driving data is a great way to develop a dialogue.

General Motors introduced a monitoring system on its 2016 Malibu, and it’s now offered on many of the company’s vehicles. On the 2021 Trailblazer, the system can be activated by working one’s way through the dashboard display’s menu to the “teen driver” section. There, a PIN is chosen that enables parental control of variables. After choosing “setup keys” in the menu, the driver’s vehicle key can be linked to the system by placing it in a console receptacle and clicking OK. The monitoring system will be active only when the vehicle is driven with that key.

Using another menu item, the parent can set a speed limit. If that limit is exceeded while the vehicle is being driven with the activated key, the driver is warned and the data is recorded. An audio system volume limit can be set as well. Other system functions don’t require the setting of parameters. For example, the sound system won’t switch on until seatbelts have been fastened, and critical safety systems like blind spot warning can’t be disabled.

The G.M. system records data on a report card that can be seen only after entering the PIN at

the conclusion of the drive. The data includes the maximum speed attained and distance driven. Reported as well are the number of speed warnings issued, wide-open throttle events, forward-collision alerts, forward automatic-braking occurrences and traction-control applications. Pretty much everything a parent needs to gauge how junior is doing behind the wheel.

Tricia Morrow, a Chevrolet safety engineer, uses the system to monitor her newly driving daughter. “When she comes home, I can look at the vehicle report card, see how far she drove and what speed was recorded. The report card stimulates conversation with your teen.”

Ford offers a similar system called My Key. Introduced for the 2015 model year, it offers many of the same functions as the G.M. system. In addition, My Key includes a low-fuel reminder that may save dad or mom from a rescue mission.

Hyundai’s Blue Link Vehicle Safeguards Alerts, which was introduced in 2015 and is now available in most Hyundai models, enables parents to limit the vehicle’s speed, hours of operation and range. Free for three years, Blue Link differs from the G.M. and Ford systems by sending an alert via text or email when the speed limit is exceeded. It can also draw travel boundaries and monitor the vehicle’s route. Should someone try to drive the Hyundai after a curfew, the car owner is alerted. Kia, a Hyundai partner, offers the similar UVO eServices system.

Functioning much like the Hyundai/Kia system, a Guest Driver system on Lexus and Toyota vehicles provides real-time alerts.

A number of aftermarket companies offer monitoring systems that tap the vehicle’s OBDII port to obtain vehicle data. All cars manufactured after 1996 are equipped with this port, which is used primarily to enable service facilities to download vehicle performance data. Most suppliers of driving monitors charge upfront for the device and require a monthly fee for the reporting service. Consumer Reports tested systems from MasTrack, MobiCoPilot and Motosafety and found that the devices work similarly. For most of them, parents set speed limits and other parameters on the manufacturer’s website. The sites of many providers display maps illustrating the vehicle’s route for each trip.

The MasTrack system is offered in several forms. The plug-and-play version costs $187 from the manufacturer with one year of basic service prepaid. Depending on the version purchased, MasTrack can send email or text alerts if the posted speed limit or a preset speed threshold is exceeded, and can flag rapid acceleration, hard braking and switching on the ignition. A geofence can be set, and MasTrack will send an alert if the vehicle is driven beyond the boundaries.

None of these systems can replace parental supervision. But discussing monitoring system data with a teenager can open the door to constructive dialogue. The conversation should also touch on factors that are not monitored, including drug and alcohol use. NHTSA urges parents to remind their teenagers that violating underage drinking laws can result in a trip to jail, the loss of driving privileges and immense financial penalties.

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