Shortly after Denise Johnson's son turned 16 and got his driver's license, she realized that he was making some poor choices.
He was driving too fast and staying out too late. Eventually, he ended up driving his car into a ditch. Johnson, a mother of four from Bellingham, had seen a TV commercial for a car-monitoring device and decided to give it a try.
"We gave him the choice of either not being able to drive his car for a while or installing the device," Johnson says. "He chose putting the device in."
Teensurance, a vehicle-tracking device offered in partnership with Safeco Insurance, allows Johnson and her husband to be notified by text message if their son, Chris, goes over a certain speed limit or stays out past midnight. The GPS function also allows them to see his whereabouts and know whether he really went where he said he was going.
"He didn't really like it, but it also made him more aware of the decisions he made," Johnson says.
Teens, who have the highest accident rate of any age group, are the main market for these types of devices, along with fleet vehicles. As the products have become more prevalent, more options and features have become available -- from seat-belt alerts to roadside-assistance programs.
Some, such as Teensurance and Alltrack USA's Real Time with History Tracking, are GPS-based "black boxes" -- similar to an airplane's flight-data recorder -- that interface with a computer or cellphone to deliver real-time information. Another device, tiwi, even functions as a driving instructor, offering instant verbal feedback like "Unsafe acceleration. Ease off gas pedal."
Other devices rely on tiny on-board cameras. DriveCam is activated only when erratic driving behavior is detected, thereby relieving teens of the feeling of being watched all the time. It sends parents a daily "report card" with video clips of those questionable moments.
- Most vehicle-monitoring devices include a one-time product fee, free installation and a monthly service charge.
- Alltrack USA: $279, plus $35-$40 per month alltrackusa.com
- DriveCam: $899 (includes first year of service), plus $30 per month after the first year drivecam.com
- Teensurance: $99, plus $10 per month teensurance.com
Tim Haugaard, manager of special projects for Liberty Mutual (the parent company of Safeco), says the devices go over best when parents are upfront about installing them, and present them simply as something that comes with the privilege of using the car.
There's also a possible financial savings. Some insurers, including Safeco, offer discounts when a teen driver has a monitoring device installed. And teens may come to like it if it turns out to give them more freedom, rather than less.
"If we live in Tacoma, it doesn't make it so hard to let my kid drive to a concert in Seattle," Haugaard says. And if drivers get lost, they can call home to have their parents locate them and give them directions.
Johnson says that after two years, her son has become such a good driver that she and her husband don't feel like they need to track him much anymore.
"It's unfortunate that this kind of stuff gets a bad rap," she says. "We have three other children, and we will be using it for each one of them."