BY TIM EATON | Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 6:37 PM
You’ve heard of Big Brother. Well, now there’s Big Mother.
Some auto insurers in Texas are offering moms (and dads) a way to monitor their teens’ driving habits — perhaps giving them some ammunition to take away their kids’ cars or information for a little positive reinforcement, such as more driving privileges.
AAA Texas and USAA are among large insurers that are offering free — at least for a time — plug-in devices that monitor teen driving. Depending on the program, parents can view vehicle trip history, receive email or text alerts about driving events such as speeding or hard braking and use a website to locate the teen’s vehicle.
The companies said their programs ultimately could help reduce wrecks and injuries, even deaths. Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death of people between ages 15 and 19 in Texas and nationally, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Doug Shupe, spokesman for AAA Texas, said teen drivers tend to take more risks than adults. And the company’s system, AAA OnBoard, gives parents facts to use to talk with their sons and daughters about their driving and to help them develop safe driving habits early on.
“We hope AAA OnBoard can help give parents peace of mind and also keep our young drivers safe behind the wheel,” Shupe said.
Joel Camarano, USAA assistant vice president of auto underwriting, said his company’s device is “strictly a coaching tool,” and, like AAA Texas, USAA doesn’t collect drivers’ information for rating purposes or determining premiums. For its Young Drivers Intelligence program, USAA researched different technologies but settled on a plug-in device for its ease and ability to be self-installed.
Parents can plug the devices into diagnostic ports on cars built in 1996 or later.
USAA member Eric Mulligan, 48, installed a global positioning system-based device in the Toyota Sequoia that his 16-year-old son Brian drives.
“We were looking at ways that we could monitor how he was driving without being in the car,” Mulligan said.
At first, Brian didn’t like the idea of being tracked by his parents, but now he understands their motivations, he said.
“Your parents are lending you a $10,000 to $15,000 investment,” he said. “And they deserve to know where I am.”
One company, American Family Insurance, has gone even further, offering to install video cameras near rearview mirrors that are activated when the driver hits the brakes particularly hard or when he or she drives erratically. The teen and his or her parents can review the video after a driving incident. The recording works a bit like a digital recorder on a cable TV box.
A spokesman for Madison, Wis.-based American Family Insurance, which doesn’t offer policies in Texas, said ongoing supervision of young drivers is important for safety purposes.
“Once you get used to it, you’ll probably forget it’s there,” the company said. “And as long as you drive safely and responsibly, it will forget you’re there, too.”
Camarano said USAA could offer cameras, like the ones at American Family, in the future.
“We’re always looking for new, emerging technologies,” he said.
Researchers agree that parents need to be involved to ensure their teens’ safety on the road.
Daniel McGehee, director of the Human Factors and Vehicle Safety Research Program at the University of Iowa, has seen and conducted research that shows that cameras can reduce unsafe teen driving events by 60 percent to 80 percent.
“It’s a very large drop in safety-related events,” he said.
McGehee, not a fan of the GPS-based devices by USAA and AAA, said those insurers’ systems lack context. The cameras, on the other hand, help teens recalibrate their driving after looking at video of specific incidents.
“You get the complete context. It’s quite difficult to argue against anyone because you see everything,” he said.
For the Mulligans, the USAA device is good enough for now. And it just might be making Brian a better driver, his father said.
In a recent interview, Brian recalled “constantly getting alerts” for aggressive driving. But now, they are fewer and further apart.
“I might not brake as harsh, knowing that my parents will get a text,” he said.