A June 1 Style article gave an incorrect first name for the president of the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif. He is John O'Toole, not Jim O'Toole. (Published 6/8/04)
Susan Blocker's 16-year-old son, David Brooks, got his driver's license in October. But she is still a little concerned about him driving on his own. So they recently agreed on some rules: The first time someone calls about him driving poorly is grounds for a warning, or talking about it. The second time his driving privileges get restricted. And the third time means no driving for a while.
So why is Blocker, who lives in Seffner, Fla., so sure people will call?
Since January, David has been driving around with a bumper sticker on his Toyota pickup. It says: 1-866-GO-GET-MOM.
Fellow motorists can drop a dime on him, as well as other teenagers with the bumper sticker, if the young drivers are speeding or otherwise behaving recklessly. Unlike the high-tech tracking devices that some parents have installed to monitor their children, "Go Get Mom" depends on good old-fashioned tattling.
Motorists have to give the state and license plate number before describing what they've witnessed. The automated system then zaps the message via phone and e-mail to parents within seconds.
"It's not a penalizing thing. It's more of an extension of being a parent for a little while longer," says Donna Graf of Valrico, Fla., the mastermind behind the bumper sticker.
In April 2003 her son was about to get his license when Graf, a consultant who handles licensing and annual reports for mortgage companies, realized there might be a way to monitor young drivers the way some truck drivers are with those "How's My Driving" stickers.
At her son's tennis lesson, Graf and a friend joked at the notion. But later that day, her husband, Jim, a mortgage executive, saw a real possibility. It wasn't practical to plan on manning motorist calls, the couple decided. So they sought out call centers. One in Canada recommended they consider using a voice recognition system instead.
In January, Graf's company, Go Get Mom LLC, based in two rooms in her home, went public with its bumper sticker campaign. Her son Michael, 17, wasn't too pleased to be the first teenage participant when he acted as a tester for the system last fall.
"I was just saying 'Not on my car,' " says Michael of his parents' idea. "But there's nothing you can do about it."
Jim O'Toole, a lawyer and director of the National Center for Youth Law, an Oakland, Calif.-based child advocacy law office, says Michael is pretty much on point.
Even if someone is over 18, O'Toole says, "Parents have a lot of rights over their children. . . . They get to make choices like this."
The bumper sticker is pretty hard to miss.
Right above the toll-free number in screaming red, the sticker announces: "TEEN DRIVER -- How Am I Doing?"
That's David Brooks's take on it, says his mother, who manages human resources at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Still, David says he has to admit the sticker makes him drive differently: "You know if you do something stupid, your mom or dad could find out," he says. "But sometimes I forget" it's there.
"If that one phone call deters something, then it's all worth it," says his mom. So far, David, who'll be a high school senior in the fall, has a clean record.
But not Michael. Graf says she has gotten two calls about her son.
The first, last fall, went something like this: "I saw the convertible going down the road at 65 in a 45. And when he turned, I'm surprised he didn't flip the car." The second caller, months later, said he'd been "clocking" Michael at 65.
Graf, GGM's president, says she, her husband and GGM's two other staff members want kids to consider that their parents -- or a stand-in out there -- are always watching. Maybe, they say, it will prevent some tragedies.
But what about simply trusting your kid?
Graf, who grew up in McLean, says many new teen drivers are just beginning to feel more independent and perhaps don't listen to their parents as much. They also just don't have much driving experience. So why not get other parents and motorists to help out?
According to the most recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, automobile accidents were the leading cause of death for people age 16 to 20 in 2001, totaling nearly 6,000 deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported the same year that just over 5,000 of those deaths were drivers and occupants of vehicles.
In Maryland, the State Highway Administration's most recent numbers report 22,426 accidents in 2002 involving people ages 16-20. Of those, 115 were fatal accidents, killing 135 who were either driving or riding in those cars. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reports that in 2002 there were 42,353 accidents involving drivers ages 16-20, with 165 fatalities. In the same year, the District's Department of Transportation reports, there were 1,691 accidents that involved young drivers, and two fatalities.
Assuming that GGM has a chance at reducing the number of teen accidents, John Grant, a retired Florida state senator and consultant on insurance for state and national government, is working to get insurance companies to discount the rates of GGM drivers, similar to students getting lower rates for good grades. (Statistics gathered by State Farm Insurance show that students with good grades are less likely to be in car accidents.)
But David Menning, an actuary at State Farm, says there would have to be a viable study before the industry would consider a GGM discount. It would be tricky to verify that the bumper sticker had remained on the car for a prolonged period and as a result helped prevent accidents, he says.
Says Graf, "Obviously, it's about the parent keeping [the sticker] on the car. It's an understanding that 'Honey, I love you and want you to be safe.' "
What can be documented is the number of motorist calls.
Michael Mendenhall, a senior engineer at CPT International in Marietta, Ga. -- which maintains the GGM phone line -- says there have been about 150 calls from motorists since January. Messages are kept on file for up to 30 days, he says.
And a sprinkling of parents in Florida, California, Illinois, Texas, Georgia and most recently in New Hampshire and Arkansas are giving it a try.
The same automated system that fields the watchdog calls is also set up to field membership calls. Online registration is also available. Last month the company reduced the annual fee to register three cars to $29.95, and $19.95 for each additional car. Initially it charged $79.95 and $59.95, respectively, says Graf.
Julene Fletcher of Villa Park, Ill., put a sticker on her 18-year-old daughter's car in April.
"It's a safety issue. I think kids are so excited to be behind the wheel, and they don't realize some things," Fletcher says. "Although, I'd like to stick this on some adults' cars."
That has already happened, too.
"I was so embarrassed," says the guilty party, John Keener, GGM's vice president of marketing. "I didn't even tell my wife that day."
He was driving and talking on his cell phone to a colleague. He then made a turn without signaling. While still having that phone conversation, he clicked over to another call and heard the GGM message: "This isn't about a teenager . . ."
Keener said he looked in his rear view mirror and knew the message was likely from the guy behind him.
There's a mom out there for everybody.