If you're worried about what your teen drivers are doing on the road, the market is ready to take your money for software-based GPS programs and apps that work through cell phones to act as surrogate nannies.
American parents worry about everything having to do with their kids, and these "safe kid" vendors have plenty of scary stats to fuel the fear about teen drivers -- car crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens; 500,000 teenagers are killed or injured in accidents every year.
But actually the number of teen car-related accidents is down, and the main reason has nothing to do with cellphone spying. Thank state laws that don't let very young drivers hit the highway with that ultimate distraction -- their friends.
Thanks the laws, not apps
Insurance industry statistics show that 16- and 17-year-old driver death rates go up every time an additional passenger is added. According to AAA, the drop in fatal accidents is due largely to improved driver education (including warnings about the risk of drunken or drug-enhanced driving), more seat belt use, and increasing restrictions on young motorists -- so-called graduated driver licensing (GDL).
From 1996 to 2008, fatal crashes involving 16- or 17-year-old drivers fell by half, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teenagers are also less interested in driving early than they used to be. The current teen death toll is about 6,000 per year.
Lots of choices, and only a few are free
But the technology is ready, and anxious parents are ready to buy it. For $249, the Cadillac of apps, Mobile Teen GPS, will monitor how fast your kids are driving, find where they are in real time, and record if they're visiting "unapproved locations." There's a $29 a month data plan, but the manufacturer notes that you may be eligible for insurance discounts.
iGuardian Teen is a lot cheaper, at a one-time $19.95, and it does things like prevent your texting and making calls while on the move. It will also record video through a dash camera in five-minute loops, and automatically upload them in case of an accident.
GM's OnStar now offers a Family Link pilot program for 10,000 family subscribers that will display a map of exactly where your teen driver is, and it's likely to expand to include arrival/departure "alerts" and speed data.
But you don't necessarily need to pay through the nose for peace of mind. Safe Driver is a free iPhone app and motion control to tap into the GPS and emit beeps to warn speeding drivers. The pop star Justin Bieber is the pitchman for a free PhoneGuard DriveSafe app (for BlackBerry and Android phones) launched last month that disables your kid's phone texting, email and keyboard functions at speeds above 10 mph. If you want to pay, you can, because "a larger application suite" is coming in September for $29 a year.
Outsmarting the tech?
Teenagers are often smarter than their parents about technology, so it's easy to imagine them outsmarting these apps. But they can't get around GDL laws, which since the 90s have divided young drivers into learner, intermediate and full privilege stages. These days, 30 states (and DC) outright ban cell use by novice drivers, and 48 restrict nighttime driving. The big one is that 44 states (and DC) put limitations on the passengers teen drivers can carry through the intermediate stage. In effect, it often means that the most vulnerable early license holders have to drive with relatives, not peers. Frankly, that works.
Some of the apps might be useful, especially if parents are too busy to ask timely questions and keep in contact. But the iron rule of GDL laws, which threaten to suspend or revoke the freedom represented by that first driver's license, do more to keep your kids safe. Nobody likes being grounded.
Here's a video tour through some recent apps: