Guest Opinion: Teen driving, minus the fun

Chicago Tribune
Sept. 3
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Once upon a time, the teen years meant new freedom, as kids graduated from constant parental supervision and gained easy access to a bigger world. Nothing symbolized this new independence better than a driver’s license and a set of wheels.

The Beach Boys captured that adolescent spirit in one immortal song: “Well, she got her daddy’s car/ And she cruised through the hamburger stand now/ Seems she forgot all about the library/ Like she told her old man now/ And with the radio blasting/ Goes cruising just as fast as she can now/ And she’ll have fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes the T-Bird away.”

These days, Daddy would be taking the car away a lot sooner. Or maybe he wouldn’t have to — because young Emily would go straight to the library, adhering carefully to the speed limit, with the radio playing at moderate volume. And fun? She can find it at the library, in the dictionary.

All this is because Daddy and Mommy have much better ways to keep tabs on their teenage motorist’s time behind the wheel. Various devices and apps have come along to provide data on drivers’ habits. Allstate offers discounts on auto insurance to those who install devices that record “information about your driving habits, such as the number of miles you drive, your speed, and how quickly you brake.”

But Chevrolet is sparing owners the trouble of installation, while giving them more than just data. It will offer “Teen Driver” technology on 10 of its 2017 models, including the Cruze, the Malibu and the Silverado. As the Chicago Tribune reports, it “can let parents limit the maximum volume on the radio and can give audible and visual warnings when the car is traveling faster than the preapproved speed set by the parent.”

The radio won’t work at all if anyone occupying a front seat isn’t buckled in. Parents can check a “report card” indicating how far the vehicle went, whether the anti-lock brakes were engaged and whether there were any, um, “wide-open throttle events.” Chevy’s device is just the latest and most comprehensive version of a type of technology that is also offered by Ford, Hyundai, Kia and Mercedes.

It’s no surprise that some parents would want this sort of control. Letting a high school kid take the car out is a high-risk gamble. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2013, “six teens ages 16-19 died every day from motor vehicle injuries.” On a per-mile basis, it says, “drivers ages 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.” If keeping their kids safe means tightly limiting and supervising their driving, who can blame parents for being intrusive?

There may be an added safety bonus to this technology: Deprived of so much freedom, teens may elect to stay home and connect on Facebook rather than go to the hamburger stand. Or they may ride their bikes or skateboards, which are not subject to the same sort of control, besides being less risky.

It may also stimulate creativity: For every tactic Mom and Dad devise to keep Junior out of trouble, Junior and his buddies will look for ways to defeat it or get around it. Teen Driver may look foolproof, but we’re betting it’s not, quite.

Still, 16-year-olds are going to find cars considerably less liberating than they were in the old days. For those who want to experience driving thrills — well, there are always video games.