Most Americans view getting a driver’s license as a rite of passage and synonymous with freedom—freedom to be with friends, to go where you want. It also gives their parents a break from the free shuttle service they’ve been running for years.
Unfortunately, that freedom comes with risk. Newly licensed drivers experience the highest crash rates in the first six months after getting their license (the top line in the graph below). Teens drive safer when the parent is in the car due to the Hawthorne effect because they know they’re being observed. When teens drive alone, however, that effect disappears. Even after a period of supervised driving with a learner’s permit, newly licensed teens are much more likely to get into an accident once they start driving alone.
The good news is that safety improves dramatically after the first six months of independent driving. Practice works, so getting through those months safely is the real challenge. It’s the classic chicken and egg problem: In order for teens to learn to drive safely they need to practice driving alone, where an accident is most likely to occur. So how can we ensure that teens are safer when they start driving solo?
There are a number of remote surveillance products on the market that try to substitute in-person supervision with real-time video monitoring, “geo-fencing,” and location tracking. We believe these solutions are well-intentioned, but fundamentally flawed. These devices ignore the needs of the teens doing the actual driving. In other areas of their online lives, young adults are told to be protective of their privacy, but these products disregard that entirely. The freedom of a driver’s license now comes with the cost of being spied on, with nothing in return. With these conditions, who wouldn’t try to break the rules or throw the device out the window the first chance they get?
These solutions also don’t consider parents who might want to respect their teens’ privacy, or who simply don’t feel the need to follow their every move. Our culture increasingly equates surveillance with good parenting, so parents feel a pressure to keep tabs on their teens. But in our research, parents get overwhelmed by the flood of data they’re presented with, while the information they do manage to absorb often lacks context and can cause needless worry.
Not only does resorting to surveillance create a poor user experience, it doesn’t give the new driver room to build safe driving skills on their own. Preserving a close relationship with a teen is already challenging for parents, and for many surveillance is too big of a breach of that precious trust. None of the products currently on the market address this concern.
For both today’s teen driver and parent, freedom ain’t what it used to be.
A Different Approach
As we reflect on Teen Driver Safety Week we ask, how could a connected car company make those first six months of driving the best and safest they can be for both parents and teens? It’s challenging to consider their competing needs, but by doing so we can reframe this life experience in a positive light. Instead of being constantly monitored, what if new drivers could show off specific driving skills? What if parents had a non-intrusive way to coach their teens and build their confidence? How might we catch new drivers doing something good?
Questions like these inspire us to shift focus from the threat of consequences to open communication and trust, something parents and teens both want. We want teens to master good driving habits and experience the personal freedom they yearn for, while parents can create a path to responsible adulthood and worry less. An approach that successfully takes everyone’s needs into account would be a huge win for parent-teen relationships.
Most importantly, would this approach lead to safer driving and fewer accidents? We believe the answer is yes. If we make learning to drive a desirable experience for teens—one where they seek advice from parents, brag about good driving achievements, and practice responsible decision-making—teens won’t have to be cajoled into safer driving. Safe driving will be something they can be proud of.