I still remember the look on my daughter’s face the first time she plowed her car into a tree.
She was four years old. The car was a battery-powered Barbie-mobile with a maximum speed of 3.2 mph. As the car moved, very slowly, toward the enormous live oak on our neighbor’s lawn, she threw both hands in the air and screamed.
Tree, Barbie-mobile, and daughter all emerged unscathed. But at the time I remember wondering what was going to happen when she was 16 and climbed behind the wheel of a real car.
Driving is one of the most dangerous things your teenager can do. It’s the leading cause of death for people age 16 to 19, per the Centers for Disease Control. Aside from the usual problems caused by inexperience, overconfidence, and inebriation, a host of technological distractions make it even more deadly.
Teens are four times more likely than adults to get into a crash while texting or talking on the phone, according to the US Department of Transportation. It’s such a common problem that the US DOT set up a Web site entirely devoted to distracted driving, hoping to persuade teens to take a pledge not to text and drive.
Here are five ways you can ensure your kids keep their eyes and brains on the road so they can arrive home in one piece.
1. Smarter, safer cars
Over the last few years, car makers have begun building teen safety features into their cars. Just last week GM announced its first in-car system to monitor teen drivers and restrict what they can do behind the wheel. The Teen Driver system, coming inside the 2016 Chevy Malibu, will use the driver’s key fob to identify when a teen is behind the wheel.
The system will automatically mute the radio until their seat belts are buckled, prevent them from blasting tunes at ear-splitting decibel levels, and issue warnings when they exceed speeds preset by an adult. If the car has built-in safety features – like forward collision or blind zone alerts – it will prevent the teen from turning them off.
Parents can then view how well their young drivers did using the car’s infotainment system. The idea is for you to go over their “report card” with them and discuss, say, why they were doing 74 when the speed limit is 55 or why they swerved twice.
Ford has its own teen safety system called MyKey that can also nag teens to buckle up, turn down the radio, limit the maximum speed of the vehicle, and block incoming calls or text messages. MyKey is available for nearly all new Ford and Lincoln models.
2. Wireless text blockers
Even if you don’t plan to buy a new ride any time soon, you can still add safety features to your current wheels by adding the right apps to your teen’s smartphone. Three of the major wireless companies offer free apps that keep kids from texting while driving, though they don’t all work with every phone. But because they have direct access to each carrier’s network, these apps can sometimes do things that other apps can’t, like block texts sent to iPhones.
AT&T’s free DriveMode app works with iOS or Android phones. It turns on automatically when your teen is traveling at 15 or 20 mph, silences new text alerts, and sends an auto-reply saying your teen is too busy driving to respond. If he turns DriveMode off, it will send you a text.
Sprint’s Drive First does the same thing, but only for Android phones. You can designate a handful of numbers as “VIP Contacts” whose calls will automatically go through even when Drive First is enabled. Teens will have to enter your PIN number in order to disable it. Verizon recommends Safely Go, a third-party Android app that’s essentially identical to Drive First.
3. App solutions
If your carrier doesn’t have the right safety app, your next stop is either the iTunes or the Google Play Store. If you’re an Android family, you have more options, because Google allows app makers greater access to their phone’s basic features than Apple does.
Android apps like Safe Driving Text Machine, Safe Driver, and Text or Drive, will automatically detect when your child is in a moving car and auto-respond to texts. DriveSafe.ly and No Texting While Driving both read your texts aloud and generate auto-responses. There are many other apps just like these.
Canary won’t stop your kids from breaking the rules or driving like maniacs, but it will alert you when they do. Available for both iOS and Android, Canary sends you an email moments after your teen unlocks her handset to send a text or make a call while in motion, as well as alerts when she exceeds the speed limit or leaves a designated geographic area.
4. Dongle Fever
A growing number of devices will plug into your car’s onboard data II port (OBDII) and report on how well your young speed racer drives and where he’s been, as well as your car’s overall health. Some will also work with phone apps to prevent them from sending texts from the road.
There are two basic types. Devices like Automatic ($100) work with an app on your teen’s smartphone and use its GPS and Internet connection to get location information and transmit driving data. Others like Zubie ($100) and Mojio ($150) have their own internal GPS and wireless connections. Some charge extra for data plans.
When my son first started driving, we used the Audiovox Car Connection; it sent me a text message when he left home and arrived at school, showed his location throughout the day, and graded his overall driving. It worked great – until he finally figured out that he could just reach under the dash and unplug it.
And that is the fatal flaw of these devices. But if the dongle is unplugged, you’ll usually get an alert so you can have an interesting discussion when the kid gets home.
5. Driving schools
Probably the best way to keep your teens safe on the road is to have an expert teach them driving essentials – and I’m not talking about their high school drivers ed teacher.
When my son was 16 he spent a day at the B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driving school at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, where professional drivers taught him how to deal with distractions, handle a car in a skid, and what to do if a rear wheel goes off the road.
As I write this, my now-16-year-old daughter is on her way to the BMW Teen Driving School for a two-day safety course. By the time she returns, I’m confident she will be a much better driver than her old man.
Over the rest of the year, BMW will be holding free two-hour teen driving classes in 9 major US cities, starting this week in Atlanta. You can sign up for one at the BMW USA web site. Tire Rack’s Street Survival, a nonprofit educational group, will hold more than 100 free training sessions this year for teen drivers in locations across the country. Consumer Reports has a state-by-state directory of teen-oriented driving schools, most available for free or a nominal fee.
But don’t focus on the cost. There’s no putting a price on your teen’s safety behind the wheel. With the right tech and expert training, I’m hoping that my daughter’s first vehicular encounter with a tree will also be her last.
Send messages and driving tips to Dan Tynan here: ModFamily1@yahoo.com.