Big Mother? Car cam keeps eye on teen drivers

Tyler Suter is a teenager most any parent would be proud to have. He makes As and Bs at Seckman High School. He's respectful to his parents. Responsible, too. Through a part-time job at a local ice rink, he earned half the money for a car he found in the classifieds — a 2004 maroon Mustang without as much as a crumb on the floor mats. So when it came time last July for Mom and Dad to hand over the Mustang keys to their newly minted 16-year-old driver, you'd think they didn't hesitate, right? “It was scary — very, very scary,” said his mother, Nora Suter, as Tyler, slightly embarrassed, hid his face beneath a shiny mop of black hair that curled at his neck. Nora and John Suter said they trusted and treasured their son. But no matter how responsible he is, they didn't want to take their eyes off of him completely as he sped off with his friends into a particularly risky phase of teen independence — the first year of driving. Thanks to their insurance company, the parents found a solution that's made Tyler a reluctant celebrity at his school, and his mom, well, a bit like Big Mother. Last July, the Suters installed a video camera the size of a paperback just above the rear view mirror of the Mustang that keeps a running tab of Tyler's every erratic driving move. Alas, there have been many. Such as the time Tyler's buddy in the car urged, “Yeah, do it, do it” above a rant of rap music pumping out of the Mustang's speakers. Tyler obliged. He floored the gas to pass a friend's high-riding pickup in a subdivision, only later realizing that the red “record” light had blinked on. The camera stopped just seconds after Tyler looked up sheepishly at the lens — leaving his mother and father to ponder their son in a freeze-frame of guilt. “I looked up and saw the light and I knew I was busted,” Tyler recalled. Then there was the video of the time he nearly rear-ended the car at the stop sign as his friends yelled, “Stop, stop!” Nor could Mom and Dad forget the blown stop sign where Tyler gassed the car into a right-hand turn to catch up with a friend, again with his passengers egging him on. “Unh, unh, unh,” Nora Suter muttered again and again as she watched the videos on a laptop inside the family's kitchen, with Tyler and her husband nearby. Thanks to two lenses, the camera had simultaneously captured what was going on both inside and in front of the car. The montage of speed, risk and peer pressure was enough to make any parent cringe. “Tyler, do you see how dangerous this could be?” Nora Suter said calmly in reference to the blown stop sign. “A child could run out on the street and you'd have no time to stop.” The Suters got the camera for free through American Family Insurance's Teen Safe Driver program after hearing about it through a friend who is an insurance agent. “We can certainly give you something to talk about with your child,” said American Family Insurance spokesman Steve Witner. Though the company has no evidence the cameras reduce insurance costs, it believes they enable parents to better connect with their children about driver safety. With the videos, teens can't deny their mistakes and are more apt to understand and fix them more quickly, Witner said. The Suters are one of 9,000 families nationwide who have taken the insurance company up on the camera since the program started about four years ago. The program is entirely voluntary. The camera arrived in the mail last summer with a voucher for installation. It will remain in Tyler's car free of charge for a year. Whenever the Mustang makes a notable erratic move, the camera starts recording. Then, like in a spy movie, the footage is broadcast via satellite to a San Diego-based company called DriveCam, where a safety specialist reviews it and writes a brief critique. The videos are then posted on the company's website where parents can log into a password-protected account and view them. In cases in which the footage is particularly disturbing, Mom and Dad get an e-mail alert. Remember Tyler's passing stunt? Nora Suter got both an e-mail and a written critique of Tyler's erratic “event.” “Reckless, unsafe behavior was exhibited in this event. The driver's actions constituted disregard for the safety of themselves or others,” wrote a faceless DriveCam employee named Erin. Not all of the critiques are so pointed. Tyler was once flagged when the footage revealed a friend improperly wearing his seat belt. Once he was praised for his quick reflexes when a car shot out from a feeder road right in front of him and he swerved to avoid a serious accident. Mostly he's been called out on taking corners too quickly, rolling past stop signs and having too many distractions in the car. “You own the environment in your vehicle,” said one critique. “You need to clean it up — turn down the music and require that your passengers stay calm and that they don't distract you.” Witner said American Family did not offer lower rates in most states for policyholders who use the cameras. The company has a right to view the videos, but it does so only to track overall teen driving trends and habits — most notably the way peers and technology can easily distract even the most responsible of teens. Witner said the videos were not used to set individual rates or determine a particular insuree's risk. In the nearly six months that Tyler has had the camera, his driving has gone through many peaks and valleys — as evidenced by the spiky line graph resembling an erratic EKG that tracks his driving performance over time on the family's private DriveCam web account. Nora Suter acknowledges that the videos make her heart jump. But she said she'd rather know than remain ignorant and leave things to prayer and luck. She and her husband said they were sometimes tempted to take the keys, but they want to use the videos for learning, not for punishment. “This forces Tyler to be honest about his behavior,” she said. The Suters sometimes are called “helicopter parents” by acquaintances who mistakenly think the couple spies in on a ceaseless live feed of their son driving. But Nora Suter said she and her husband were more like “submarine parents.” They troll the waters out of sight and occasionally “pop up” in an emergency “or when there is the opportunity for learning to help him out.” And Tyler? He admits he's getting better, remembering to brake before a curve rather than in it and stopping fully at the stop sign. But he's not entirely thrilled about a silent red eye looking down at him and his friends on the road to independence. Tyler has sympathizers. He told his mother that his boss at the ice rink — a college student — was incensed about the camera. The boss offered to go to the parking lot and rip it out. Nora Suter looked back at her son armed and ready: “Well,” she said, “you tell him, 'When you are older and have kids about to drive, then you can come back and talk to me.'” Tyler said it was common knowledge around his high school that he's the kid who's got the car with the camera. Once, a buddy tried to turn it off. The camera coolly blinked back on and began recording.