- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Drive carefully. Big Mother may be watching.

A new electronic monitoring device for vehicles has hit stores and is being marketed to parents to keep track of not only where their teens take the family car, but also how.

Similar to the “black box” used on airplanes, the device, called DriveSync, records when, where, how far, how fast and even how aggressively a vehicle is driven.

“We’re marketing this [to parents] as a communication and safety device,” DriveSync spokeswoman Sandra MacDonald said. “There are mixed reviews from the teenagers, but the parents are saying, ‘Hey, I bought the car, I pay for the insurance, this is the way it’s going to be.’ ”

The device, about the size of a car stereo, is mounted on the dashboard, floorboard or elsewhere inside a vehicle. It is connected to the car’s electronic diagnostic system, which powers the device, and is designed to be installed without professional help.

Driving data is tracked using global positioning system technology and recorded on a receiver inside the device. Data such as trip logs, route maps and usage alerts can be viewed on a password-protected Web site.

Manufactured by Intelligent Mechatronic Systems Inc. of Waterloo, Ontario, the device has been on sale since late summer for $329. It’s being test-marketed in about 50 CompUSA stores throughout the U.S. — half of which are in the Washington area. Retail giant Target also sells the device on its Web site.

DriveSync also sells in stores in Canada and Great Britain, and online in France and Germany.

The device doesn’t offer live reports, so parents can retrieve the data only by detaching the data key from the unit and connecting it to a personal or laptop computer. The data then can be viewed on a password-protected Web site.

Similar systems have been used for years by packaging and shipping companies. But Intelligent Mechatronic Systems is the first company to manufacture a model targeted to families and sold at stores.

The company would not reveal the number of devices sold but says sales are on pace to match or exceed its goals for the year.

Several insurance companies are testing the product and are considering offering discounts of 10 percent to 25 percent for drivers who use the device, the company says. Company officials declined to say which North American insurance companies are interested.

A call for information to the Insurance Information Institute wasn’t returned.

Teens may not be thrilled about having their driving habits monitored. But the company says the device actually may help reduce the peer pressure that leads to reckless driving.

“It’s more of a deterrent that allows teens to get out of that peer pressure model where you have five kids in a car telling the driver to gun daddy’s 340-horsepower engine,” Ms. MacDonald said. “They can just say, ‘Look, I’ve got this thing in the car — can’t.’”

If the system is tampered with, a yellow light will blink. And if the unit is disconnected, no data will be recorded — another warning signal to parents.

Privacy advocates worry that insurance companies could require car owners with electronic monitoring devices to turn over the system’s data or risk having their rates increase or their policies canceled. Or that law-enforcement agencies or government agencies could demand access.

A teenager with poor driving habits captured by electronic monitoring devices could have difficulty later on obtaining his own insurance policy.

“This could create some privacy concerns or other unforeseen consequences,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. “Consumers need to have much more control over their personal data.”

Besides, Ms. Coney added, monitoring systems are no substitute for good parenting.

“Some parents might think it’s easier to buy the technology than actually deal with a problem that a child has, ” she said. “Surveilling them may not be a better answer.”

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