Slow down, teens: Mom and Dad are watching

The days may be over when a 16-year-old could get a little privacy, even a few miles of adventure, behind the wheel of the family car.

Safeco Insurance is launching a program called "Teensurance," in which parents can monitor their children's driving with a small global-positioning device, fastened to the dashboard.

A Web site lets parents set limits, so if the car goes over a certain speed, or ventures too far from home or school, a message is automatically sent. Parents can request a cell phone call, text message or e-mail.

Or, they can locate the car using an online map. They can request a message when the car reaches school or some other destination.

Seattle-based Safeco announced Tuesday it will offer the technology to policyholders in 44 states, starting June 27, for an introductory fee of $14.99 a month. There are no rate discounts for now, until the company determines whether the program reduces insurance claims.

Company leaders described it as a tool to promote communication between new drivers and parents.

"Teensurance helps young drivers demonstrate responsibility, improve their driving skills and earn their parents' trust," said Jim Havens, Safeco's vice president for customer solutions.

Recently, AIG announced it would offer tracking devices in six states. In the Midwest, American Family Insurance offers DriveCam, to capture video images inside the car, before and after a sudden stop or acceleration. Pemco Insurance said this week it is looking at possible applications.

Among the skeptics is Matthew Lee, driver-education instructor at West Seattle High School.

"If the knuckleheads at Safeco actually believe it's going to open up conversations, it's an accusational kind of conversation," he said.

He says the system doesn't address the biggest risk of teen driving, that "they don't know danger when they see it." Years ago, his son hit another car while rounding a freeway exit curve during a September rain squall, not realizing that 35 mph was too fast for the conditions.

What does work, Lee said, is for parents to share their experience, by riding with their drivers-in-training.

Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, said she worries about the slippery-slope effect, that tracking will become a way of life.

Another privacy advocate, Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he doesn't trust companies to guard information on vehicle movements, which could be highly valuable to marketing companies, or a lawyer armed with a subpoena.

Safeco says it will have no access to individual records. Its technology partner, Seaguard Electronics, has strong privacy policies, and its encrypted data would be impossible for outsiders to read, said William Tsumpes, Seaguard's CEO.

Automobile collisions are the leading cause of death for 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States, accounting for 36 percent of all fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anne McCartt, vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said there isn't much data yet on whether parental-notification devices work, but they seem to be "a logical development," since crash rates are low when teens have an adult alongside. Just knowing that Mom and Dad are receiving information should promote safer driving, she said.

Seattle parent Libby Harvey, picking up her son, who attends Garfield High School, said he's had three accidents in less than two years, so a tracking system sounds good. "I think it could be helpful, to help the kid learn to slow down," she said.

Garfield senior Jason Wimbish said the device "kind of sounds like the bracelets people wear when they're under house arrest." He says he has only one speeding ticket but knows a few teens who might benefit from tracking.

"If I was a parent, I'd probably have to get one of those," he said.