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High-Tech Tools for Keeping Teen Drivers Safe

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the U.S., making up more than one-third of the deaths in Americans age 16 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An April 2011 study by State Farm Insurance and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia examined more than 800 crashes involving teen drivers and found that 75 percent were due to teen driver error. Fifty percent of serious crashes with teen drivers occur because teens don’t scan the road ahead for hazards, drive too fast for road conditions and are distracted. No wonder many parents hesitate to hand over the keys.

But, what if you could monitor how your teen was driving, prevent them from speeding, protect them better in a crash or reward them for ignoring distractions? “Many parents are actually more willing to provide the keys knowing that they have this type of feature,” says Michael Deitz, senior group manager for connected car at Hyundai. And, more safe time behind the wheel gives teens more experience, which helps prevent crashes.

In Pictures: High Tech Tools for Keeping Teen Drivers Safe

Ford’s MyKey System

Standard on most Ford and Lincoln models, Ford’s MyKey system uses a programmable key to help parents control how their teens drive. Parents can use this key to limit the car’s speed, limit the stereo volume, keep the stereo from turning on until all occupant seatbelts are fastened and sound chimes when the car reaches 45, 55 and 65 mph. Like other automakers, Ford offers optional hands-free control of cell phones, including a feature that can block incoming text messages or automatically read them to the driver.

Hyundai’s Blue Link System

The Blue Link telematic system on the 2012 Hyundai Sonata, Sonata Hybrid and Veloster automatically calls for help in the event of a crash, but also alerts parents when their teen driver engages in unsafe behavior behind the wheel. The Geo-Fence feature allows you to “set boundaries that you don’t want the vehicle and your teen driver to go beyond, and you can also set exclusionary ones if you don’t want a teen driver to go into a certain area,” says Deitz. Curfew alerts are another feature parents will appreciate. “This is the one that you’re really glad they didn’t have when you were a kid,” comments Deitz. “You can set it up so if you don’t want the vehicle driven after 11 pm or midnight on a particular night, you’ll be notified by text message, email or even a phone call if that vehicle is driven.” Finally, you can set speed alerts. If the car is driven over a set speed, Blue Link will contact you. If teens know that where, when and how they drive is being monitored, they may be less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Knee Airbags

Since teens tend to be slightly smaller than adults, they’re less likely to receive optimal protection from the seatbelt and airbags. A knee airbag not only cushions the driver’s and front passenger’s knees, but helps prevent them from sliding under the dash in a crash. If occupants slide down in an accident, the front airbag could deploy closer to their head rather than their chest, increasing the risk of injury. Knee airbags used to only be available in high-end cars, but now even affordable cars like the Chevy Cruze and Ford Fiesta offer them. Additionally, more small cars are now earning top crash-test scores, so parents can get cars that protect their teens and suit their budgets.

Smartphone Applications

Driver distraction contributes to crashes that involve teen drivers, and automakers have responded. Hyundai’s Blue Link blocks incoming texts, but allows drivers to send outgoing texts via voice commands. The MyFord Touch system allows drivers to choose to block incoming texts. But you don’t need to buy a new car to get these features. A number of free smartphone apps can block calls and texts when you’re driving and respond to them with an away message.

SafeCell, an Android and iPhone app, costs $11.99 and uses the phone’s GPS to determine what local text and hands-free laws are, and alerts drivers so they can comply. SafeCell doesn’t just remind drivers not to text, it also rewards them for safe driving. After 500 miles of safe driving, drivers earn points that translate into $5 worth of gift cards at retailers like Amazon or Macys. Unsafe driving removes points from the user’s account. SafeCell can also generate detailed driving reports so parents can check in on how their kids are driving.

Driver Feedback, a free app from State Farm available on the iPhone, uses the phone’s accelerometer to track things like speed, braking and cornering, and gives feedback on performance. Parents can check out maps of where dangerous driving occurred, and track improvements over time.

An Engaged Parent

Parental involvement isn’t a high-tech tool, but it’s the most effective. All of the high-tech safety gadgets in the world won’t keep a teen safe if parents aren’t involved. Even Hyundai’s Dietz says that Blue Link’s alerts are “not a substitute for parenting.” Not every teen is ready to drive, and parents need to consider not only their teen’s safety, but also the safety of everyone on the road when they hand over the keys. If your teen is ready to take the wheel, having some high-tech safety features can take some of the worry away.