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Newest Source of Teen Ire: Webcams in Their Cars

By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

Ken Richardson does not have to ride in his 17-year-old daughter's Ford Escort to know when she takes a turn too fast.

The camera system installed in her car will e-mail him about it.

"She's at that age where she's a little rebellious," said Richardson, 54. "And I'm at the age where I'm not gonna take any crap."

The Richardsons are among more than 100 families in Southern Maryland enrolled in a state-sponsored study to install camera systems that record the moments before and after an unusual driving maneuver, such as sudden braking or a too-sharp turn. State officials say the cameras could decrease the number of teen drivers killed in crashes.

Some of the teenagers have other thoughts on the matter.

"I feel like I'm being babysat, like I'm being watched constantly," said Stacie Richardson, Ken Richardson's daughter. "It drives me nuts."

The cameras are among the latest tools in the struggle to reduce teen car crashes, a problem that has been particularly vexing in Maryland. Last year, crashes involving drivers ages 16 to 20 killed 112 people in the state. Such accidents, including one this week in Montgomery County, are often caused not by alcohol or overt recklessness but by simple driver inexperience. The problem has persisted despite efforts by lawmakers to restrict teen driving privileges.

"Really, the single most dangerous thing we let our children do is drive a car," said Daniel McGehee, director of the human factors and vehicle safety research program at the University of Iowa. "It's frustrating for those of us who study crashes in general."

Until recently, the in-car monitoring systems being installed in Southern Maryland were used primarily by commercial companies interesting in monitoring their drivers. In the battle against driver inexperience, they are joined by other devices that keep a detailed log of a driver's speed or use GPS technology to constantly track the driver's position, said Bill Carpenter, an executive with DriveCam, the San Diego company that makes the cameras.

The camera, mounted on the front windshield, captures footage of what is happening outside as well as in the vehicle. It saves about 20 seconds of that footage only when its sensors are triggered by excessive G-forces. Those forces tend to accompany unusual driving maneuvers such as sudden braking or swerving.

Saved footage is transmitted back to DriveCam via a cellular network. DriveCam experts review the videos, add tips for the young drivers and post them to a Web site where parents can see them a day or so later. Parents receive an e-mail alert when the videos are posted.

The camera can capture anything going on in the car, but the company uploads only footage that involves unsafe driving. "If an event is captured that is embarrassing to the teen . . . then we're not going to return it to the family," Carpenter said.

On a recent night in their home in Lusby, the Richardsons sat down to review some newly uploaded footage.

"Now, Jennifer does not have her seatbelt on," Ken Richardson told his daughter sternly, pointing at the screen to a girl obviously unbuckled in the passenger seat.

"I usually don't make her wear one, but, yeah," Stacie Richardson mumbled, averting her gaze from the computer.

In the month or so since the camera was installed, Stacie has not been caught on camera doing anything too bad. Sure, dad has gotten to see her doing that teenage "gangster lean" -- driving with her seat pushed back, music blaring and one hand on the wheel, he said. And Jennifer isn't the only passenger he's spotted not wearing a seat belt.

But the camera has been a source of household division since Ken Richardson told his daughter it would be installed, whether she liked it or not.

Richardson has tried every possible angle to convince his daughter that the camera is a good idea. He has tried telling her she could earn new driving privileges by avoiding major incidents. He has appealed to her sense of benevolence, telling her that being a part of the study could save others' lives. And he has tried telling her that when she gets older, she'll want the same kind of device for her kids.

"Whatever. I don't want to hear it," Stacie said, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms.

The limited research conducted on DriveCam elsewhere in the country seems to support dad.

McGehee, the University of Iowa researcher, tracked 25 new drivers using the camera and a feedback system for more than a year starting in 2006. The six people that McGehee classified as "high-frequency drivers," meaning they triggered the camera frequently early on, did so 86 percent less after using the DriveCam and McGehee's version of the feedback system. The study was funded by American Family Insurance, which uses the cameras as a marketing tool, offering them free to the young drivers it insures.

"This one . . . has shown an effect that is much more dramatic than some of the other technologies that we've developed," McGehee said, adding that another study in Minneapolis this year yielded similar overall results.

The cameras in Southern Maryland typically cost $900 for the hardware, installation and a year of service, Carpenter said. After the first year, the service costs $30 a month, he said.

As part of the Maryland study, supported by a $170,000 grant through the State Highway Administration, the cameras and a year of service are available free to more than 200 Southern Maryland families. Researchers from the University of Maryland are attempting to determine how effective they are in curbing risky driving. Only a few weeks into the year-long study, they have yet to record any results.

"I think it's a great program," said Cindy Burch, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland's National Study Center. She said researchers want to "really sort of tease out what's helping these kids." Many teens admit that as much as they might loathe the camera, it does force them to pay closer attention to their driving.

Jamie Leigh Szewczyk, 16, could not understand why her mom, Nancy, wanted her to install a camera. She was a 4.0 student involved in several extracurricular activities, including dance and volleyball. She was a good driver, and a good kid, too.

"I felt like they couldn't trust me," Szewczyk said. "I'm like, I've done everything, I've been good all these 16 years, and you're going be there watching me when I have this little bit of freedom?"

But after a month of driving, Szewczyk reluctantly admitted she has warmed to the camera. After all, it has made her a better driver, she said.

"I went like a week or something . . . without getting any videos," she said. "I didn't say anything to anyone, but it was kind of like a little moment of excitement."

Carpenter, naturally, has grandiose visions for the future of DriveCam. What if it came down in price, and all insurance companies provided discounts for parents who installed it? What if parents could install it in their cars and prove to their insurance companies that they, too, were good drivers, deserving of a discount?

"I think we're a ways away from that, but that would be a good thing," he said.

Over his daughter's objections, Ken Richardson would also like to see DriveCam expand its reach. A former firefighter and paramedic, he has seen firsthand the consequences of driver inexperience.

"The last thing I want is to get a call in the middle of the night or a knock on the door," he said. "This is one of those issues where I have total control. If you want to drive, you're going to have a camera in your car."

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