It's a nightmare when your teenagers start driving. This is because:
1. You don't want them to die
2. It's ridiculously expensive
If, as a parent, you lie awake at night imagining your teenager trapped upside-down in the mangled mess of a head-on collision, you are not being melodramatic. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) says that the single biggest cause of accidental death among young people aged 15 to 24 is getting in a car and dying in a crash.
Forty per cent of 17-year-old males have an accident in their first six months of driving.
Once you know how dangerous the whole thing is, worrying about the cost pales into insignificance. But if you've already paid out for the car and the insurance, the last thing you want is to wave goodbye to thousands of pounds in garage repairs and higher premiums because your teenager has wrapped himself round a lamppost.
So what's to be done about the high accident rate for young drivers? Various proposals
are floating around. Maybe young drivers shouldn't be allowed to drive at night when it's so much harder to anticipate danger.
Maybe they shouldn't carry other passengers for a set period of time after they've passed their test (there's evidence that having your mates in the car tends to distract you, so that you drive less safely).
Maybe the test itself should be harder, or everyone should spend at least one whole year learning to drive.
While the new Secretary of State for Transport mulls over all these suggestions, the car manufacturer Ford has come up with a completely new idea. They have introduced the idea of MyKey, which will be available on all new Ford Fiestas sold in the UK from 1 January 2013.
Basically, MyKey means that the owner of the car (the worried parent) has the master key, and gives their teenager a second key that has been programmed to place restrictions on how the car is used.
If, for example, your teenager likes driving with the audio system turned on full blast, and you think this might be a tiny bit distracting, you can reduce the maximum volume.
You can set maximum speed, too. With MyKey, your teenager can't drive faster than 80mph unless (in an emergency) he really jams his foot down. But parents can also set a maximum general driving speed of 45, 55 or 65mph. Once your teenager goes beyond this, warning chimes will sound continuously – like a really annoying alarm clock – until he drops below your set limit again.
(Why is 45mph the lowest, I wonder? In London, where I live, there are so many traffic enforcement cameras waiting to fine you if you drive over 30mph, I can't help feeling that 25mph might be more useful...)
You can also set the software so that your teenager can't disable safety technologies that control traction or prevent low-speed collisions.
So are all these parental controls a good idea? My son Ben had mixed feelings. "If you were quite a safety-conscious driver, it might help. But if you were with your mates and determined to drive too fast, it wouldn't stop you."
I'm not sure I'm won over either. Ford's MyKey technology might make some parents feel happier.
But I think the only thing that's really going to stop inexperienced drivers from making bad decisions when they're behind the wheel is legal restrictions. It worked for seatbelts. It worked for drinking and driving.
Maybe, like they do in Northern Ireland, new drivers should be required to carry R-plates (meaning 'Restricted Driver') for a year after passing the test and have a much lower speed limit than everyone else. (The green P-plates for 'Probationary' in the UK are optional, so no help at all.)
Maybe newly qualified drivers shouldn't be able to drive at night, or on motorways, or with more than one other passenger in the car.
There are objections to the idea of restrictions. You could argue, for example, that it's safer to have one designated driver on an evening out rather than four teenagers in four separate cars.
But no solution is perfect. What's important is to give young drivers the time to gain vital experience.
Because the Ford MyKey technology is so new, no one knows yet whether having it will reduce insurance premiums. Logically, it should do. Anything that reminds a young driver to reduce speed should make insurance cheaper.
But if you want to encourage your teenager to drive more safely – and at the same time pay out less for his insurance – you might want to think about installing a little black box in your car that records how well he drives. If the insurer can see he's driving well – good acceleration and braking, for example – the premiums are likely to drop.
Even more importantly, one insurer, says that the incentive to drive more safely provided by this kind of insurance accounts for a 35 reduction in the likelihood of the young motorist being involved in an accident.
It is, as I say, a nightmare thinking of your precious teenager risking his life on the road. Do whatever you can to make sure he has a lot of experience of driving well before he heads out on his own. Driving lessons are horribly expensive, but they do make sure that the basic safety drill is drummed into his head.
Alternatively, buy him a bicycle...
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