By Hugh C. McBride

Ford Motor Co. has announced a technological innovation that the company is promoting as a way to improve the safety of teen drivers and enhance the peace of mind of moms and dads across the country.

Ford’s new “MyKey” system will give parents the power to limit what their teens can and cannot do while driving vehicles that feature the new technology. Described by Detroit News writer Bryce D. Hoffman as a “fully configurable system [that] allows concerned parents to program their children’s keys from a menu of restrictions and enhanced alerts,” MyKey is set to make its debut as a standard feature in the 2010 Ford Focus compact car (and is expected to rapidly expand to other Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury models).

A Range of Options
When a person uses a “MyKey” to start a vehicle, a computer chip in the key will trigger a set of restrictions that have previously been established by whoever has control of the system’s master key. Parents whose vehicles are equipped with “MyKey” technology will be able to ensure that the following restrictions will be in place every time their teen drives the car:

  • The car’s maximum speed can be limited to 80 miles per hour. (In a sign of the economic times, Ford is promoting this option as both a safety feature and a fuel-saving opportunity.)
  • Warning chimes can be set to ring when the car’s speed reaches 45, 55 or 65 miles per hour.
  • A six-second seatbelt reminder chime can be set to ring every minute for five minutes – at which point the stereo system will be silenced until the driver’s seatbelt is fastened.
  • The stereo system can be programmed to play at no louder than just over 40 percent of full volume.
  • A low-fuel warning can be programmed to activate when the gas supply dips below the 75-mile range (25 miles earlier than when the standard warning is issued).
  • The driver may not have the ability to shut off safety features such as the vehicle’s Blind Spot Information System, Cross Traffic Alert, or traction control system. (Being prevented from disabling the traction control system may be particularly disappointing to would-be hot-rodders, as it precludes “burning rubber” by spinning the car’s wheels before beginning to move.)

The system can be modified to include eight separate key-activated settings, which would give parents the ability to “phase in” greater freedoms as young drivers become more experienced, while continuing to impose maximum restrictions on teens who need them.

“Our message to parents is, hey, we are providing you some conditions to give your new drivers that may allow you to feel a little more comfortable in giving them the car more often,” Jim Buczkowski, Ford’s director of electronic and electrical systems engineering, said in a release that announced the new system.

A Question of Safety
Concerns about the safety of teen drivers and others on the road are supported by a wealth of research and statistics. According to information provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenagers face considerable risks when they are behind the wheel:

  • Drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to be involved in an automobile accident.
  • In 2005, teenagers accounted for 12 percent of all motor vehicle deaths in the United States, though they represented only 10 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations or not be able to recognize hazardous situations.
  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next). The presence of male teenage passengers increases the likelihood of this risky driving behavior.
  • Among male drivers between 15 and 20 years of age who were involved in fatal crashes in 2005, 38 percent were speeding at the time of the crash.

In the Ford release that announced the MyKey, the company’s Vice President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering said that the technology can help to improve these dismal statistics. “MyKey can help promote safer driving, particularly among teens, by encouraging seat belt use, limiting speed and reducing distractions,” said Susan Cischke.