Tracking Devices Let Parents Keep Watch on Teen Drivers

It’s 11 p.m. and your 16-year-old son is driving 55 miles per hour in a 45-mph zone. You're sitting at home, miles away, but you know all about it.

You can call him and tell him to slow down. But will you? And will your kid be thrilled to get your call?

Thanks to new systems developed for major insurance companies, parents are able to track every move their children make behind the wheel.

Teenagers are ambivalent at best about the programs, however, and privacy advocates think it's a violation of drivers' rights.

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Safeco Insurance, based in Seattle, released its "Teensurance" system to the public on June 27. AIG, based in New York, has a similar program in pilot testing.

Both systems place GPS trackers in vehicles, then automatically notify parents via text message, voicemail or e-mail every time a teenage driver drives above a preset speed, travels beyond a certain distance from home, or stays out past curfew.

"You can program the service to notify you when the car is going over the speed limit for more than 30 seconds or if the car is being driven after a curfew is set," Safeco spokesman Jim Havens said.

Teensurance, which costs $14.99 per month with a two-year contract, even hooks up the GPS tracker to the car's electronics.

It can unlock car doors in case of lockout, call for roadside assistance and by the end of the year will also be able to shut off the ignition.

It's available in the states Safeco operates in — all but Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Subscribers get 100 free "locates" — in which a car's location is displayed on the Teensurance Web site — during the two-year contract period.

Neither system will actually prevent the car from driving above a certain speed.

AIG would not disclose its subscription fees but said insurance premiums would not be raised or lowered — it claims its program is intended simply "to help young drivers."

Safeco said breaks on insurance rates for people who participate in their program would be a possibility in the future.

Both companies tout their systems as increasing safety and fostering communication between teenagers and parents, but privacy advocates see it differently.

Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electric Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based digital-rights organization, argued that such systems may be legal, but not ethical.

"It definitely flirts with the line of privacy issues and, depending on who you talk to, may cross it," he said. "If the teenager is underage, then it is more of an ethical issue."

A teen over the age of 18 may live at home and drive his parents' car, Tien pointed out, but that teen is an adult and entitled to privacy rights.

Havens dismissed the privacy concerns.

"We are very clear in our privacy terms in explaining what the requirements are," he said. "Our intent is to increase parents' peace of mind while enabling teens to gain more freedom."

Tien sees another problem with the Web-based access to the information: Is it secure from data thieves?

Hacking "is a real problem, but we are working with an outside company to ensure the safety of our customers," Havens said.

Tien also pointed out that government officials with court-ordered warrants could use the tracking information for investigative purposes, as has already happened with electronic road-toll-collection systems such as E-ZPass in the Northeast.

The real question, of course, is how such a device will play with parents and teenagers.

Emily Tsen, a 17-year-old driver from Marlboro, N.J., with a provisional license, finds the idea of electronic leashes sad.

"I think that it shows major distrust," Tsen said. "I would start questioning my ability as a parent if I had to put a tracking device in my child's car so I could watch them all the time to make sure they weren't doing anything stupid.

"I doubt it would open any lines of communication," she added. "If anything, it would close the lines of communication that already exist."

Guy Thompson of Lake Oswego, Ore., and his newly licensed daughter, Maggie, 16, have been using Teensurance as part of a test trial since May 31.

Thompson said he checked on Maggie a lot at first, to see where she was and how fast she was driving, but after a few weeks he ended up doing so only once a day .

"I think it's great for getting her from the permit stage to where she is out on her own," he said.

Thompson, who set the software to notify him if Maggie drove faster than 45 mph or went farther than 5 miles from home, feels the system is ethical as long as it is used between parents and their children.

"I'm not spying on her, although I can see some parents may want to do that," he said. "I mean, I wouldn't want one in my own car.

"Maggie didn't like the idea of it at first, but she agreed to it," Thompson said. "Now she speaks pretty highly of it because she likes the safety aspect of it."

Maggie was very hesitant at the beginning of the program. "I thought my parents would be on me all the time, which didn't sit well with me," she said. "I was not comfortable when I started using it."

Now, she said, she doesn't even notice the device any more — but added that if it were up to her, she'd rather not have it there, because of its potential to keep her parents informed on every move she makes.

"It's a little invasive," she said. "But at the same time it develops trust."

Car-rental and shipping companies have long been using ground-based radio-frequency tracking devices, such as the popular Lojack, as well as the newer satellite-based GPS trackers to prevent theft and increase chances of retrieval.

Several private companies sell GPS trackers directly to end users who want to track their personal vehicles, but Safeco and AIG may be the first insurance companies to deploy them on a wider basis.

Havens called Teensurance a "total solution" system with GPS as only one of its many aspects, although he admitted some similarities between it and GM's more expensive OnStar system, which uses GPS to track vehicles and cell-phone networks to communicate with drivers.

Sgt. Kern Swoboda of the New York State Police thinks these devices are a good idea.

"Any tools a parent and young driver can use to help them become more cognizant of their driving abilities will inherently assist in making better drivers, especially if they know their parents are watching," Swoboda said.

Anne McCartt, senior vice president of the Research for Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research and communications organization funded by auto insurers, said that teenagers who've just received their licenses are at the highest risk for getting into accidents.

But she admits no one knows exactly how the devices will affect driving behavior.

"It still isn't positive whether or not this is something people will accept," McCartt said. "We think it's important, putting aside the legal issues, that teens don't perceive this as a 'Big Brother' method."

And some clearly do see it that way.

"This'll scare teenagers more than anything else," Tsen said. "Big Brother is turning into Big Parent."