With Car Cameras, Teen Drivers Have Wide Audience

In an effort to reduce teen car crashes, Maryland parents are recording their kids driving. A look at what happens when kids stop driving and start text messaging.Produced by Gaby Bruna/washingtonpost.comFootage by: DriveCam.
By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

More than 100 cameras that record the moments before and after an unusual driving maneuver are still available for free for Southern Maryland families with teenage drivers.

The cameras are among the latest tools in the effort to reduce teen car crashes, a troublesome problem in Southern Maryland. Last year, crashes involving drivers ages 16 to 20 killed 15 people in the region, where young drivers have few public transportation options and often long commutes to school.

"We're looking for any teen driver," said Jackie Beckman, community traffic safety program coordinator for St. Mary's County. "By our data, we are a serious problem area for young drivers."

The cameras, produced by San Diego-based DriveCam, are paid for with a $170,000 grant from the Maryland Highway Administration, officials said. Typically, the hardware, installation and a year of service cost about $900. After the first year, the service runs about $30 a month. In Southern Maryland, Best Buy will install the cameras for free.

The cameras are mounted on the front windshield and capture activity inside and outside the vehicle. They save about 20 seconds of footage when sensors are triggered by excessive G-forces, which tend to accompany maneuvers such as sudden braking or swerving.

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

University of Maryland researchers are studying the cameras' effectiveness in hopes of solving a problem that has vexed lawmakers and researchers for decades.

"Just riding in a car with another teen is extraordinarily risky," 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."

There are no results from the Maryland study, which has been underway for a few weeks. Other research has shown that the cameras are effective.

McGehee tracked 25 new drivers using the camera and a feedback system for more than a year starting in 2006. The six people he classified as "high-frequency drivers," meaning they triggered the camera frequently early on, did so 86 percent less often after using the DriveCam and 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.

Some teens said they were less than thrilled with having cameras in their cars, even if they only recorded incidents of bad driving. Still, most said the cameras had made them better drivers.

"Now I watch my turns more carefully," said Stacie Richardson, 17, who has been driving with the cameras in her Ford Escort for about a month.

Her dad, Ken, could hardly hide his exasperation: "And that's exactly the point!" he said.

For details about DriveCam, contact Jackie Beckman, St. Mary's County, 301-475-4200, Ext. 1850, or Jackie.Beckman@co.saint-marys.md.us; Rebecca Martin, Charles County, 301-932-3056 or martinb@ccso.us; or Debbie Jennings, Calvert County, 410-535-2200 or jennindk@co.cal.md.us.

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