Liz Erk (lizerk) wrote,
Liz Erk

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August 22, 2002

A Parental Black Box for Young Drivers


CAMARILLO, Calif. - LARRY SELDITZ flew missions in Vietnam, served as a test pilot for the Army and worked as chief operating officer for the Andy Granatelli auto racing organization. His current venture, selling black
boxes to ambulance companies and police departments to monitor driving habits, is a natural extension of his experience with aircraft and fast driving.

But his next step comes from a different type of experience. His son, Jeff, will turn 16 in January, and this fall Mr. Selditz's company will start selling black boxes to monitor the driving habits of teenagers. The devices not only track how fast they go, how hard they turn and how fast they stop -
information that parents can review later - but they also emit loud beeps when the driving gets out of hand.

"I have a son who is 15 1/2, and for two years he has known he's getting a black box in his car," said Mr. Selditz, who is president of Road Safety International.

The company has sold black boxes to ambulance companies, police departments and fire departments for 10 years and has 250 customers. The advanced version for emergency vehicles sells for $3,500, but the scaled-down box for teenagers will sell for $280. The device plugs into the connector on cars
that mechanics use to diagnose problems. Those connectors are standard on models from 1996 or later, and parents can install the boxes without the help of mechanics. In older vehicles, technicians must install the system.

The company has tried out the system on eight teenage road testers this summer. One of them, Nickki Gibeaut, 18, demonstrated how the system works at Road Safety International's headquarters here. The company installed the system in her Chevy pickup four months ago, and her driving habits have already changed so much that she had trouble getting the box to beep. "It's kind of like having a parent in the car," she said. "I compare it to my mother. Usually when she's in the car, she's correcting me."

She took a hard turn, then sped to a stop sign and pounded on the brakes. The box, bolted under the passenger seat, sounded a warning tone that was barely audible, like the tapping of a pencil on a desk. The warning will continue if the driving does not improve, and eventually it gets louder.

Driving faster than 70 miles an hour will cause beeps, which get louder and longer if the driver does not slow down. Not long into the road testing, the company added a setting that Mr. Selditz calls the "Limp Bizkit mode" that increases the volume of the beeps when the noise level rises inside the car. One young man had simply turned up his radio to tune it out. When Ms. Gibeaut first got the system, she could not drive far without hearing a beep.

Returning to the office of Road Safety International after her drive, Mr. Selditz downloaded data from the box into a computer. The system is sold with a memory card that parents can plug into a port on the back of a computer.

The computer screen showed columns of numbers, including the odometer reading and the number of miles driven as well as detailed statistics from measurements of the car's G-force, or the force of gravity on driver and passengers as the car moves. When the force exceeds the limit, the numbers
appear in red type. In Ms. Gibeaut's case, the chart showed an instance that exceeded the G-force limit by 42 percent. A click on that number produced a chart that showed a steep downward curve from 50 miles an hour to 0 in five seconds. It
was a fast stop.

The software compiles the data to give drivers a single score for their skills, from Level 1, the lowest, to Level 10. Emergency service agencies ask drivers to reach Level 5, which equates with driving eight miles without a beep. From paramedics and police officers to teenagers, drivers start at
Level 1. Ms. Gibeaut started there too. "My turning and my stopping, I thought they were perfectly good, but I guess
they're not," she said. But her record started improving quickly, and she said she now feels guilty if she drives the way she used to.
mbulance drivers have had the same experience. American Medical Response, a company in Aurora, Colo., that provides ambulance service in 35 states, has installed the systems in 20 percent of its 4,000 vehicles during the last
five years.

The results in San Antonio were striking, said Ron Thackery, vice president for safety, risk management and fleet administration. The entire group went from Level 1 to Level 5 in less than 90 days, he said. "It's almost like Pavlov's dog in terms of conditioned response," he said. "That immediate feedback and conditioning helps to improve the safety of the

The company has also seen a drop in maintenance costs and a decrease in collisions, he said. And when members of the public call to complain about ambulance drivers, the data can reveal whether the complaint is legitimate.

By the same token, parents who buy the device will not have to guess about their children's driving habits, or, eventually, their whereabouts. The company plans to introduce a product next year with Global Positioning System technology that will allow parents to check a Web site to find out
where the car is.

Barbara Gibeaut, Nickki's mother, said she wished the system had been available for her older daughters. "It's not snooping," she said. "It's just being a responsible parent."

Nonetheless, the reaction to the box from her daughter's friends was consistent. Whatever you do, they said, don't tell our parents.

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