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Drive Time

Growl If You Think Teenage Monitoring Has Gone Too Far


There were three girls in the front seat of a car that passed me as I headed home Sunday. It was 7 o'clock, and the summer evening sun had gone golden, bright enough still to throw shadows, mellow enough to look into without squinting. It shone through the windshield of the car that passed me, illuminating the three girls in the front seat as if they were in a movie. For an instant, I could see the shine of their lip gloss, the comb marks in their still-wet hair, the nudge of their breastbones beneath smooth tan skin.

The one sitting on the passenger side was turned toward the others, her arm around the neck of the girl in the middle. They were laughing. The driver had both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road, but she was laughing too. For a moment, I wanted to be in that car so badly, squashed in the seat with my friends, the smell of shampoo and lip gloss and drugstore perfume rubbing against each other like our sweaty hips and knees. Who knows where they were going--the mall probably, or maybe out for pizza, but it didn't really matter. The best part was the drive, being alone together in a car on the way to somewhere else.

For a moment, my stomach clenched in sudden longing, and then they were gone, and I was on my way home again, wondering if the meat had thawed and if there were any potatoes left.

Teenagers in cars are usually not catalysts for sweet nostalgia. In conversations--private and public, among adults--teenagers in cars are, more often than not, the nexus of anxiety, irritation, frustration and fear. Relieved as they might be at not having to shuttle the whole soccer team around anymore, most parents surrender the keys with one eye on the clock and cell phones set to ring and vibrate.

Likewise, many policymakers have spent a lot of time worrying about teenage drivers, adding new requirements and timetables to the process of earning a driver's license. In some places, there are curfews and restrictions on how many other teens can be in a car when a teen is driving.

And now there is a black box. For years, some emergency vehicles have had installed a device that monitors and records the performance of a driver based on speed, acceleration, braking, etc. And now SafeForce, a Camarillo-based company that makes the box, has modified the design--and its price--for public consumption.

This fall, parents will be able to install a small black box that will monitor seat-belt use, speed and tire traction. The recorded information can then be retrieved at home with a memory card that can download into home computers. And when a driver goes too fast, or takes a turn too hard, the box will growl or beep in warning.

Like squealing tires don't already do that.

No doubt, this will be a very popular item, and no doubt it will make a lot of parents feel better and maybe even convince a few teens to slow down before they're close enough to spit onto the stop sign. The argument is that kids are simply inexperienced and don't realize they're going too fast or taking turns too sharply. But the last time I checked, most cars come with speedometers, and if you make that left too suddenly, well, other drivers are only too willing to let you know.

No matter what you call it, this is a surveillance device, and even in the post-Sept. 11 age, surveillance is always a little scary. Will the box be turned off when the adults reassume the wheel? Is that fair? The great majority of accidents do not involve teenagers after all. Personally, I can't imagine willingly installing in my car anything even capable of beeping or growling--with two toddlers, I've got way too much noise going on as it is.

The beeping and growling are also a bit troublesome. What with the cell phones and pagers, most teens are strung with, how on Earth will they know one beep from another? And growling? How weird is that? Much more effective would be a recording of the parent conveying alarm and anger. A burst of angry expletives, a sharp admonishment to slow down using the child's own name would probably have a better result (especially if there are other teens in the car). My mother had a sudden intake of breath that pulled itself into a low keening as she applied the phantom passenger-side brake that was particularly effective. And very difficult to ignore.

Watching those girls flash by on a Sunday night, I remembered the shivering thrill of burgeoning independence, when it was a gift not a chore, when you knew you had to be careful because if you screwed up, it would be taken from you. Maybe those girls wouldn't have shone as bright if there had been a black box in their car, if they had to turn in a memory card at the end of the evening and then sit while their parents evaluated their driving mile by mile. Maybe.

As a parent, I'm all for safer roads. But perhaps we should hold off on the black boxes for a minute, wait until there is reason to believe a teen is having a hard time understanding or obeying the rules of the road. And then maybe instead of a recording, a real-live grown-up should drive around with him or her for a while. Short of a grizzly, no one growls more effectively than a grown-up who would rather be somewhere else.

Mary McNamara can be reached at

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