Seattle and Madison, Wis. — A handful of U.S. auto insurers have begun offering in-car cameras or global positioning equipment to help parents monitor their teenagers' driving behavior, hoping to reduce the number of crashes involving young motorists.

Traffic accidents are by far the No. 1 killer of U.S. teenagers, with a fatality rate four times higher than drivers aged 25-69. A total of 5,288 teens died in traffic accidents in 2005, and more than 7,000 were driving cars involved in fatal accidents.

Insurance companies can benefit significantly if the initiatives catch on, says Craig Weber, senior insurance analyst with Boston-based research and consulting firm Celent LLC.

"It's a unique opportunity for them to help change behavior, which will help them drive down rates, which will make customers happy," Weber says. Even if rates don't drop, "it's a huge win in building customer loyalty and generating positive PR,” he adds

Under American Family Insurance Co.'s Teen Safe Driver program, a camera records audio and video images of both the road and the driver when motion sensors detect swerving, hard braking, sudden acceleration or a collision. The footage goes to an analysis center where it is graded for riskiness and sent on to parents with comments and coaching tips.

While the early data is limited, Madison-based American Family says teen drivers participating in the program have had significantly fewer crashes and injury accidents than would have been expected based on national driving statistics. It also says driving risk scores measured in the recordings analyzed drop an average 80% during the first 16 weeks.

Rusty Weiss of DriveCam Inc., the San Diego-based company that developed the technology, says the video captures more inattentive mistakes than aggressive-driving ones; for example, teens talking on their cell phones, listening to iPods or heeding friends' advice to run yellow lights. Private details and conversations are not shared with parents, he said, nor are individual incidents or video clips given to American Family.

"Our program is really about providing a bridge between parents supervising teenage drivers in their vehicle and being out there on their own," Weiss says.

Seattle-based Safeco Corp. has a similar program in place, with recently announced premium discounts of up to 15% for participating customers of its Teensurance program.  

Teensurance, which employs a set of online tools based on an on-board GPS and notification technology called the Safety Beacon, enables families to take proactive steps to monitor their teen’s behavior behind the wheel. Parents can set speed, distance and curfew limitations. A real-time notification service tells parents when their teen drivers are in danger.

The company’s goal with Teensurance is to keep communication open about driving and the responsibilities that come with having a driver’s license.
 
“Teensurance is a proactive solution to help our customers keep their families safe on the road, and the first in a series of Safeco innovations that push beyond traditional insurance to impact our customers on a broad scale,” says Jim Havens, vice president of consumer solutions at Safeco.
 
The Teensurance program’s set of tools includes set “safe driving” zones to gradually ease new drivers into the driving experience; the ability to unlock a car door remotely using a simple code; access to 24/7 roadside assistance, a parent/teen contract and pertinent educational materials, including a “TeenDash” survey.

Available to customers with Safeco auto insurance policies, Teensurance includes free installation of the Safety Beacon, which is guaranteed for two years.
 
Sources: AP, Safeco, INN archives

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