Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, many of whom were no doubt driving while distracted in the moments leading up to the deadly accident.
A 2009 study released by the Pew Research Center showed that half of U.S. teens with cellphones admit talking on them while driving, and a third say they’ve written text messages while behind the wheel.
While smartphone technology shares the blame for distracted driving among teens, this same technology can also be used to keep young drivers safe on the road. With the goal of preventing accidents among teen drivers, new smartphone apps can monitor speed, halt distractions such as phone calls and texts, and promote safe driving. In some cases, these apps could mean better auto insurance rates for teen drivers.
Go to the iTunes online store or Google “phone apps for safe teen driving,” and you’ll find an array of safe-driving apps. For families who don’t have smartphones, many companies sell in-car tracking devices that can monitor a teen’s driving habits while preventing a driver from making calls or texting behind the wheel.
'Urgent need' to protect teen drivers
“There is an urgent need to teach and protect teen drivers,” says Mark Loges of Orlando, Fla., creator of the iGuardian smartphone app with his wife, Helena. “Teen distracted driving has become an epidemic with cellphones.”
The Logeses, who have a combined 16 years of experience in the auto insurance industry, wanted to develop an app that could reduce teen driving risks. To prevent teens from becoming distracted by incoming calls while driving, the app mutes the phone ringer, turns vibration off and diverts incoming calls directly to voicemail.
The app also allows a smartphone to serve as a dashboard camera that records several sources of data, including speed, GPS location and distance traveled. The app provides regular driving reports at the end of each driving session to alert parents by email. It also can send immediate alerts and video if the app detects an accident or if the teen initiates a phone call while driving.
The user must purchase equipment to mount their smartphone on the dashboard of their car.
“We saw many vehicle and driver monitoring services already on the market, but they all require hardware to be installed and cost hundreds of dollars,” Mark Loges says. “Our app is geared toward new teen drivers and can help them transition from a driver’s education program to driving solo.”
The iGuardian app is not affiliated with any auto insurance company. However, Loges says it can be useful to insurers in the event of an accident.
Auto insurers' apps
State Farm is among the auto insurers that have introduced apps designed to guide teen drivers.
The Steer Clear app, part of the insurer’s safe drivers discount program, allows teens to complete self-assessments of their driving, take a safe driver pledge and log the trips necessary to qualify for a 15 percent discount.
“These apps help families to have constructive conversations about safe driving,” says Sevag Sarkissian, a spokesman for State Farm. “Both of these apps are free to the general public to download from the State Farm website.”
Allstate's free Tag In app allows teens to send a message and GPS notification indicating they have arrived safely or are heading home.
Several insurers, including California Casualty Insurance and Alan Insurance of Co. of Texas, endorse the OTTER (One Touch Text Response) app.
OTTER, which sells for $4.99, includes a GPS feature that lets parents enter a passcode and find out when their teen’s phone is in a moving vehicle; OTTER will silence all text notifications, and will auto-reply with an anti-text and safe-driving message. The app senses when a car is going over 10 miles per hour, and silences all ringtones unless the driver is using a Bluetooth.
Apps can make a difference
“Apps that monitor teen driving provide families with another safeguard to ensure their children drive safely, especially when they are new to driving,” says Dr. Bharath Chakravarthy, associate director of UC Irvine’s Center for Trauma and Injury Prevention Research.
Preliminary research shows they can be effective. A 2009 report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that teens decreased their risky driving habits when their vehicles were equipped with monitoring devices such as a camera or GPS, the same features found in many phone apps.
“It’s important for parents to discuss the rules or the road with their teens and set solid consequences if they are broken,” Chakravarthy says. “Parents also need to lead by example. It sends out the wrong message if you’re speeding, or texting or talking on your cell phone while driving.”