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Teen driver, meet Big Brother

Special to The Times

Back in the 1960s, teenagers could keep their parents in the dark about where they were driving by temporarily disconnecting the odometer cable on the family car.

All they had to do was reach up under the dashboard and unscrew a nut that held the cable to the speedometer housing.

By doing that, the teenagers could drive all the way down to Tijuana and their parents would think they just went to the local drive-in.

More advanced odometers stopped that practice. And even newer technology has given parents powerful weapons to keep tabs on their children -- black boxes and global positioning systems.

Now worried parents can just about track their young driver’s every move -- including speeding and other dangerous driving habits -- when the teen heads off in the car. You could call it the era of Big Parent.

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It may be your teenager’s worst nightmare.

Omnitrack, one of the latest products designed as an anti-theft and vehicle tracking system, allows parents to access data on their computers showing where their teens are driving, how fast they are going and the exact location of their vehicles -- right down to a street address.

The system also has an “electronic fence” that acts as a sort of leash. You determine the parameters and if the driver exceeds them, the folks at Omnitrack will notify you by phone, pager, email or fax.

The system can also be programmed with a predetermined speed limit. If the limit is exceeded, the company will alert you.

The price isn’t cheap. The devices, by GPS Technologies, begin at $995. A demonstration can be viewed online at www.omnitrack.net.

There are other choices. On a recent family road trip to Baja California, we tested the Drive Right CarChip by Davis Instruments. The device, which is about the size of two 9-volt batteries, monitors your vehicle’s performance under the hood and behind the wheel. We connected the device into the car’s on-board diagnostics connector under the dashboard and it started logging data, including speed, distances and hard accelerations and braking -- even coolant temperature.

At the end of the trip, we used the system’s software to download the information to our PC. The data showed we traveled 147 miles. I was surprised that our top speed during the trip was 81 mph. It must have been when my husband was driving. I guess he’s the one in the family who needs to be monitored. CarChip sells for $179. (Diagnostic connectors are available on 1996 and newer cars.)

There is also the RS-1000 On-Board Computer, marketed by Road Safety International. It’s a 7- 1/2-inch-by-7-inch black box that can be attached to the on-board diagnostic connector. You could hide it under the front seat, but you’ve still got a connecting wire that would show.

The RS-1000 monitors speed, use of seat belts and excessive G-force maneuvers caused by hard cornering, hard braking, erratic driving and “pedal-to-the-metal” throttle use.

Similar to a “black box” flight data recorder used in aircraft, the RS-1000, which sells for $280, monitors driving behaviors, second by second. A memory card records driving performance and can be viewed by parents on their home computers.

If your teen driver exceeds the preset speed limits or drives aggressively, he or she will hear a brief audio tone. If the driver ignores it, the alarm continues and becomes increasingly annoying until the driver responds. As the company points out, the embarrassment of having the alarm go off when you’re driving around with your teenage pals can be a strong deterrent.

My 16-year-old son echoed that assessment. While testing the RS-1000 and other similar devices, he thought the idea of having his driving monitored was “unfair, unnecessary and most of all embarrassing. What if you are driving with your girlfriend and that

Not all parents are enamored with the idea of monitoring their children’s driving. Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, says that his office has not seen any studies that prove monitoring devices actually reduce accidents and save lives.

As a parent, I would like to rely on the fact that my kids follow my advice, not because it is something I insist they do but because they are doing it for their own safety. I understand the predicament parents have when their teens don’t always do what they are told. But how far do you go?

Others, including privacy advocates, worry that collecting data on driving behavior can violate privacy. David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., is concerned about who could have access to the information and under what circumstances.

For example, the technology to track vehicles and determine their locations raises certain privacy issues. “I can foresee this becoming commonplace in divorce cases where one spouse wants to know where the other has been ... or used by law enforcement,” Sobel says.

As for my son, I know he’s a safe and skillful driver. But when it comes down to it, if you’re not in the car with them, you really never know how your teenagers are driving once they turn the corner and are out of sight.

So the idea of having technology to know his whereabouts and whether he is safe is very tempting.

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Jeanne Wright can be reached at jeanrite@aol.com.


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