New devices keep a close watch on teen drivers


The week I got my driver's license, my parents rushed out of town to a funeral. "You can use the car, but don't go far," warned Dad on his way out the door. "Whatever you do, don't cross the bridge."

Meaning, I shouldn't go visit my teenage crush Ruth and buddy Jake, who'd introduced us, in remote Cherry Hill.

Of course, I did that anyway, and got away with it. But probably wouldn't today, I realized last week, while cruising across the same Ben Franklin Bridge in a new 2016 Chevrolet Malibu equipped with Teen Driver tech.

Variations are also in a number of Ford, Hyundai, and Mercedes rides, and in aftermarket devices such as Cellcontrol and CarLink. Teen driver tech is being billed as a way to reduce car crashes, now the top killer of teens in the United States, says the American Automobile Association.

In both Chevy and Ford iterations, the safety tech is smart enough to know that a new driver is behind the wheel, thanks to a special transponder-equipped car key. The ride then automatically shifts to in loco parentis mode.

Music is muted until front-seat passengers "buckle up." Volume maxes out at a lower than roaring level, so the driver can't miss the siren not on the music track.

A visual warning comes up if the driver fusses too much with touchscreen controls - tempting as the Malibu infotainment system accesses Apple Car Play services such as Pandora and Spotify along with terrestrial and satellite radio.

Oddly, the Malibu's Teen Driver system does not tackle (as do Ford and some aftermarket devices) what is now seen as the most dangerous - and often illegal - of bad driver traits: texting in the car.

In Chevy's defense, some free phone apps such as Drive Off and AT&T's DriveMode do block texts when sensing a phone is moving above 10 or 25 mph, respectively. But as that limit alone shows, the apps are defeatable.

Still, the subscription-based OnStar navigation system in the Malibu (and in most GM cars) does improve a driver's chances of keeping eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. Just one button push brings a personal assistant on line to locate your position and chart "turn-by-turn" instructions (voice and visual) to your destination. It's better than GPS systems that miss what you say or first demand "put it in park."

Grown-ups with a standard car key can turn off some of the Malibu's hyperactive safety features, such as the flashing red lights atop the dash that warn you're getting too darn close to another car.

But there's no defeat switch for a teen-keyed driver. Visual and chime alerts also warn when the car runs faster than the personal speed limit set by Mom and Dad, which could be from 40 to 75 mph.

Making matters "worse" (or better) for the young 'uns, every time said limit is exceeded, the incident is noted as an "overspeed" in the Malibu's Teen Driver report card - a Chevy "first" that only parents can access. (It takes a secret pass code.)

This techy tattletale also shares the distance driven, the driver's maximum speed, and the number of times said driver set off forward collision alerts, performed hard braking, or activated the stability control - indicators of sloppy driving and intoxication.

With the 55 mph top speed preset in my test car, a teenage me would have been grounded for a year. Parental units surely would have surmised I had ridden beyond the bridge and onto the 65-mph-speed-limit N.J. Turnpike or A.C. Expressway. I'd notched 261 miles, was warned of overspeeding 74 times, and at one point had floored it to 91 mph.

On the Ford MyKey system, parents can limit the car's top operating speed to 80. That seems mostly good, except when you need to get out of the way of a racing police cruiser.

Aftermarket solutions

Most teen drivers start out with a clunker. If it was made post-1996, you can plug a small tracking system such as the Voxx CarLink ASCL4 into the car's OBD-II (on board diagnostics) port. Among the features CarLink offers are text blocking, driver-scoring reports, and Safety Zone "geofencing" that sends alerts when the driver has gone outside a proscribed zone. It costs $279 (plus installation), with a monthly full-service fee of $9.99.

Cheaper and better, I think, is a solar powered (so it doesn't drain the car battery) Cellcontrol system, newly upgraded, self-installable, and costing $129 with no monthly fee.

A Cellcontrol is easily programmed to enforce rules of usage on a specific phone when it enters the vehicle. The system kicks on at 1 mph, not 25, and can differentiate if a driver or passenger is using the phone. So the former might not be able to text, but the latter could.

When a driver arrives, Cellcontrol's phone app sends a message with GPS-tracked map of the journey taken.

Major car insurers now or soon will offer hardware and policy discounts for drivers with this gizmo, said Cellcontrol VP Jesse Hoggard. It is actively recommended by schools such as Chester County-based Learn to Drive Pa., said GM Todd Avery.

"Texting is the most dangerous thing out there," declared Avery. "I was watching young drivers leaving a school in Downingtown the other day. Literally 50 had one hand on the wheel and one on the phone. We demand our students be 100 percent focused on driving and their surroundings. It's scary but true. Their 3,000- to 4,000-pound vehicle can kill, even creeping at 4 or 5 miles an hour."


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