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Spy my ride

How do you keep them safe when a teenager’s first 500 miles of driving are the most dangerous? To find out if the cameras could improve teen driving, Drive Cam teamed up with the Mayo Clinic and a group of parents and teenagers in the town of Mankato, Minnesota to test drive the theory — would teenagers become better drivers if they were videotaped?
/ Source: Dateline NBC

MANAKATO, MINN.—  You may know where your kids are going, but do you know how they’re driving?

Every parent wants to prevent their teens from becoming a statistic. How do you keep them safe when a teenager’s first 500 miles of driving are the most dangerous? During that time, they’re 10 times more likely to crash than an adult.

Rusty Weiss, a former paramedic, works for a company called Drive Cam which believes that placing small cameras in ambulances and commercial vehicles could improve driver behavior and cut crashes substantially.

Weiss came up with the idea of trying it in teens’ cars after seeing so many teenagers killed in crashes. Drive Cam installs two cameras in each car — one to record the driver and passengers inside and one to record what’s happening on the road outside.

The experiment
The Drive Cam cameras installed in teens cars across the country have captured incredibly scary moments, like those in a documentary for Connecticut Public Broadcasting called "Teens Behind the Wheel."

The documentary followed 10 newly-licensed 16-year-olds over a 6-month period. The cameras recorded the teen drivers running red lights 50 times, failing to stop at stop signs. A remarkable 70 percent — 7 out of 10 kids — had accidents.

To find out if the cameras could improve teen driving, Drive Cam teamed up with the Mayo Clinic and a group of parents and teenagers in the little town of Mankato, Minnesota to test drive the theory: Would teenagers become better drivers if they were videotaped?

Parents agreed to have cameras installed in the cars of their newly-licensed 16-year-olds and watched the videotapes with their kids at least once a week for half a year.

Most of the teens weren’t thrilled with having their parents as virtual back seat drivers.

“I was like, ‘This thing is not going in my car,’” says Katelyn.

Over the six month period, the camera captured 150 mishaps.

Megan was caught on tape yelling out her car window for a friend to get into her car. "I wasn’t paying attention," she says. "And then I ran into the curb."

Experts say distractions like cell phones, loud radios, and talkative friends contribute to the teen accident rate. All those distractions were evident on the tapes. Several kids not only talked on their phones, they even text-messaged.

Perhaps most frightening, some teenagers were too distracted to notice the mistakes they made until they saw them on tape.

Paul, for example, was driving and talking to the girl sitting next to him. Paul didn’t see a stop sign, which he later just ran.

“I actually didn’t know I went through a stop sign until I saw it on tape at home,” he says.

Many mistakes seemed due more to a lack of experience than a lack of attention. Colleen, a Minnesota teenager behind the wheel on a snowy day, didn’t know how to brake properly on a slippery road.

The first thought through her mind?

“Dad’s going to kill me,” she says. “He told me that morning that if I’m in the ditch he wasn’t going to come and pull me out.”

“She’s never driven on ice,” says Colleen’s dad. “She kept the brakes on and went in a ditch.  It was a good learning experience for her. First, how to drive on ice. Secondly, maybe she’ll listen to dad when he says it’s too bad to drive.”

How many times can a kid get away with some of these mistakes before something terrible happens?

“Statistics show that for every 10 close calls, there’s one crash,” says Weiss.

The results
So did their risky driving habits improve during the 6-month project? Dramatically, according to both Weiss and the parents who watched the tapes.

The teens agree. Meagan says she's going to wear her seatbelt more — and will insist that friends who get in her car do the same.

Paul goes a lot slower now. "I make sure I’m seeing everything," he says

And Colleen drove very carefully all winter.

According to Weiss, by the end of the six month trial, risky driving behaviors dropped about 75 percent, and seatbelt use increased to the point of nearly everybody buckling up.

But this was just a pilot program and the company says more studies need to be done. At this point, the system, which costs well over $1,000, is too expensive for the average parent.

The company hopes to have a lower-priced system available in the next several months.

A cheaper way to track
So what can parents at home do right now to help their teens become safer drivers? Ben Ellison’s parents are using a device called . It’s a $140 computer chip that plugs into your car and records information that you can then download into your home computer.

With a click of a mouse, the chip shows exactly how fast Ben Schaur, who happens to be a big car racing fan, was driving. It showed how quickly he accelerated and how hard he hit the brakes.

"This is a very non-invasive way of keeping his speed reasonable," says his mother, Susan.

But Ben admits that having the Car Chip helps him avoid getting himself into impromptu races. "I’d just shake my head and say no," he says.

But regardless of how one handles the problem, all the experts 'Dateline' talked to said that the more hours parents spend in the car with their teenagers behind the wheel, and the more involved they are with their driving, the better.

This report aired on Dateline NBC summer of 2005.