Driving with Big Brother–Part IV

Over the decades, driving has been getting much safer (as measured by declining highway fatality rates). But how can we make roads safer still? Teenagers, especially boys, are (big surprise) some of the most dangerous drivers. Maybe we could yank their keys? Or just mount some cameras?

There is a curve in the road near Alexander Mougin’s house near Oxford, Iowa. The high-school senior used to like to take it hard and sharp — but that was before his car was fitted with a camera capable of recording his driving habits. Mr. Mougin, 18 years old, has been participating in a University of Iowa study to see whether the device and the data it provides can help improve teen driving. The camera, attached to the rear-view mirror, has one lens facing the road and another aimed at the driver. It runs constantly, and slips into recording mode if, for example, the car accelerates rapidly or brakes suddenly. It then preserves about 10 seconds before and after the event that triggered it. “You don’t want to set it off,” Mr. Mougin says. After 10 months of taking part in the study, he says, “I know I’m a safer driver.” Starting tomorrow, American Family Mutual Insurance Co., the nation’s 10th largest car insurer, will offer some of its customers the same system, known as DriveCam, in an effort to improve driving behavior among teens, a population that is particularly at risk on the roads. More teenagers die in car crashes than from any other single cause. Customers with teenage children in Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin will be able to request that the system be installed in their cars, free of charge. Parents will receive regular reports on incidents that trigger a recording, which they can then review with their kids. The system, made by DriveCam Inc., a privately held firm in San Diego, is the latest in a line of tools that can help parents track their teenagers’ behavior.

The company says it won’t watch the videos, but you can bet Mom and Dad will. And often that’s often enough to provoke safer driving habits:

The Iowa study includes 25 teenagers who have driven 300,000 total miles in 10 months. The researchers first let the teens drive with the device, but hid the light that lets a driver know the recording has been triggered. After several weeks, they uncovered the light, and began sending results to parents. Those most prone to trigger a recording during the preliminary period saw a 72% drop in safety-related events after using DriveCam for the next two months, says Daniel McGehee, director of the Human Factors & Vehicle Safety Research division of the university’s Public Policy Center.

The self-interested reasons for offering the free service: It’s a great way to lure customers, and:

If the program reduces the number of crashes, that could contribute to lower insurance payouts. In 2005, the last year for which data are available, nearly 5,700 16-to-20 year olds died on the roads, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 13% of all crash deaths. Another 53,000 suffered incapacitating injuries.

WSJ (subscription req’d) article here. Related: Driving with Big Brother: Three, Two, One