Teen safety technology may lead to lower premiums

Tamara E. Holmes

Parents take heed: Teenage drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely to be involved in a crash than older drivers, leading many car insurers to charge higher premiums when teens get behind the wheel. Automaker Ford hopes to help change that with a technology that could promote better teen driving habits -- and possibly lower car insurance rates.

Ford’s MyKeytechnology lets parents limit the speed and audio volume of a car, and makes sure teens buckle up whenever they get behind the wheel. It works through the use of programmable keys. The parent has a full-privilege administrator key, while the teen’s key communicates a unique set of instructions to the car whenever it is inserted into the ignition. For example, chimes can be set to remind a teen driver to slow down whenever he or she gets above a certain speed. Likewise, MyKey can be programmed to restrict driving faster than 80 mph and mute the vehicle’s audio system until the seat belts are fastened.

Ford's MyKey technology lets parents control the maximum speed that a teen driver can travel in a car.

“We put Mom and Dad virtually in the passenger seat,” says Andy Sarkisian, safety planning and strategy manager at Ford. “Mom and Dad might say, ‘Buckle up, watch your speed and turn down that radio.’ That’s what MyKey does.”

First introduced as a standard feature on the 2010 Ford Focus, MyKey now is standard on most Ford and Lincoln models. While the cars may come equipped with the technology, it’s the vehicle owner’s choice whether he or she wants to use it, Sarkisian says. It’s not about taking control, he says, but rather about helping teens become better drivers.

Developing safe habits

Research has shown that driving too fast and failing to buckle up are two areas of concern when it comes to teen driving, says Sue Duchak, who manages the Allstate Foundation’s teen driving program. While speeding is risky when anyone does it, it can be even more dangerous when it’s done by teens, who are less experienced drivers than older adults, Duchak says.

Since it was established in 2005, the Allstate Foundation’s teen driving program has sought to understand teens’ attitudes about driving and convince them to adopt safe driving habits. “It is all about helping teens view safe driving as being smart,” Duchak says.

In addition to creating programs that let teens talk to each other about the virtues of safe driving, the Allstate Foundation encourages parents to have conversations about driving with their teens, especially as a teen becomes more and more comfortable on the road. Parents should stress the importance of wearing a seat belt, as well as why it's critical to obey the speed limit and other traffic laws. Parents also should observe and look for "teachable moments," recognizing that good driving skills require buy-in from the teen and evolve over time, Duchak says.

Such a long-term view is echoed by Ford, as the automaker hopes parents will use MyKey to gradually give their children more control over the driving experience. Ford also recognizes that teens must be open to learning better driving habits and points to feedback the company has received from teens who welcome MyKey because it makes their parents more likely to give them access to the family car.  Many parents use MyKey as a launching pad for discussions about driving, Sarkisian says.

The car insurance factor

While parents who use Ford’s MyKey system may rest easier, can the technology also save them money?

If history is a guide, there’s definitely a possibility. Car insurers typically reward drivers of vehicles that have safety features that decrease the risk of accidents. For example, GEICO offers up to a 25 percent discount for driver-side air bags and a 5 percent discount for an anti-lock braking system.

Car insurers also take into account a vehicle model’s crash history when determining insurance premiums. In fact, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tracks insurance losses by make and model, which gives an insurer an idea of how safe a vehicle actually is.

Ford is sharing information with car insurers about which models have the MyKey system installed so they can monitor crash statistics for those cars, Sarkisian says. If, in time, those cars prove to have lower crash rates, it could result in car insurance savings down the road.

While it remains to be seen whether MyKey will lead to a price break on car insurance, the technology does prompt ongoing conversations between teen drivers and their parents.

“A lot of parents stop talking when the teen gets the unrestricted license,” the Allstate Foundation’s Duchak says. “You need to keep talking."

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