Nick Bunkley & Bill Vlasic
DEARBORN, Michigan: The Ford Motor Company calls its new safety technology for teenage drivers "MyKey."
Truth be told, it probably should be called "MyParentsKey," since the feature that Ford announced Monday will let parents slow down their children in the family car.
Like V-chips that restrict what children can view on television, MyKey allows parents to limit teenage drivers to a top speed of 80 miles per hour, cap the volume on the car stereo, demand seat belt use and encourage other safe-driving habits.
The MyKey feature will be standard equipment on the 2010 Ford Focus and eventually on all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models. Ford executives and industry experts say it is the first attempt by an automaker to provide parental controls on young people behind the wheel, where their inexperience and tendency to take risks can be deadly.
With 35,000 American teenagers killed in auto accidents in the last five years, the feature was welcomed by one advocate for teenage safety on the highways.
"This is a huge step in the right direction," said Ellen Gaddie, director of JourneySafe, an outreach program established by the Gillian Sabet Memorial Foundation, which was started by the parents of a California teenager killed in a 2005 crash. "Ford has identified all of the things we consistently talk about. Kids speed. Kids don't wear seat belts. Kids like to play loud music while they drive."
MyKey can sound a chime whenever the vehicle travels above 45, 55 or 65 miles per hour, and prevent the driver from turning off safety features like traction control, which inhibits spinning tires. It can also be set to mute the radio and chime repeatedly until the driver is buckled up.
"Teens have the lowest seat-belt use," said Susan Cischke, Ford's group vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering. "So we allow parents to turn up the annoyance factor a little bit."
Parents choose which of the restrictions to activate, and they take effect whenever a specific key is used in the ignition. There are no limitations when the master key is used.
A number of companies already sell aftermarket devices to track teenage drivers' behavior and location, but most are intended to give feedback to the parent, rather than immediately to the driver. Some require monthly fees, and many can be outsmarted or removed by a knowledgeable teenager.
Because MyKey is free and might be viewed as less "Big Brother" than global-positioning devices that track a car's every movement, safety advocates say it has broad potential to keep teenagers safer as they hone their driving skills.
"A system that is perceived as less intrusive may be more acceptable to teens and their parents," said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group financed by auto insurers. "If teens push back in a big way about these systems, they will be less accepted by families, and if families have a lot of conflict over systems like this, it does reduce the likelihood that parents will use them."
Ford plans to collect data on the effectiveness of MyKey and hopes to persuade insurance providers to give discounts to families who use the system.
In a survey by Harris Interactive for Ford, 67 percent of teenagers opposed MyKey. But their opposition fell to 36 percent if MyKey led parents to expand their driving privileges.
Though MyKey imposes limitations on audio volume, Ford chose not to restrict other possible distractions in the vehicle, such as its Sync digital entertainment system, which links a cellphone or portable music player to the stereo and allows hands-free use with voice commands.
"It's just recognizing that people are going to bring those devices into the vehicle and we can't actually stop teens from using them," said Paul Mascarenas, Ford's vice president of engineering for global product development. "So we want to give them the safest way to do that, which is provide voice activation control. If you make it too restrictive, people will just bypass the system."
Because technology aimed at teenage driving safety is fairly new and has not been widely used, safety advocates are not sure of its effectiveness in preventing crashes and making young drivers more responsible. But they say it could give parents more peace of mind and discourage some obviously dangerous behavior.
Ford officials also noted that MyKey has some benefits unrelated to safety, like saving gas by making drivers slow down and keeping teenagers from cruising through neighborhoods with the stereo blasting. Andy Sarkisian, Ford's safety planning and strategy manager for North America, also highlighted MyKey's low-fuel warning, which lights up earlier than normal. He called it "a little thing for Mom and Dad."
After lending the car on the weekend, he said, "how many of us have gotten into the car on Monday morning to go to work and there's no gas?"
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