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Do-it-yourself car-monitoring devices
We test two event data recorders that help extend a parent's reach

Event Data Recorders (EDRs) are used in millions of vehicles to track things such as speed, safety-belt use, and air-bag deployment following a crash. Now, aftermarket EDRs are available that parents can install in their vehicle to track their teen's driving habits. We recently tested two, the CarChipE/X with Alarm ($199) from Davis Instruments and the RS-1000 from Road Safety International ($280). We found the RS-1000 to be the better, although more expensive, system.

The safety risk of teen drivers

Young drivers' limited experience and immaturity have proven to be a dangerous combination. The hazard is so great that car crashes are deemed the leading public health problem facing teenagers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics show 5,896 people between 16-20 years of age died from motor vehicle crashes in 2004. Another 456,000 were injured.

To make matters worse, the IIHS cites studies that have shown high school driver-education programs can even add to the problem because they put inexperienced drivers on the road at a young age. An IIHS report claims training and education don't change the poor decision making and thrill-seeking behavior common in teens.

This safety risk has caused many states to initiate graduated licensing programs that restrict teens in their early driving phase. It has also created a desire for some parents to monitor and manage their children's motoring.

Pros and cons of EDRs

One way of keeping track of someone's driving habits is with an Event Data Recorder. EDRs, also called "Black Boxes," are best known for helping investigators reconstruct airplane crashes by preserving logged information from the cockpit before a crash. But EDRs have also been on the highways for years. Car manufacturers first started installing them as a way to track air-bag effectiveness. Aftermarket devices came next, initially used by fleet managers to keep tabs on commercial drivers. Capable of recording many dangerous or aggressive driving habits, EDRs are now being marketed to parents concerned for the their children's safety.

In addition to keeping a record of a driver's behavior, the two aftermarket EDRs we tested can provide an audible warning to drivers if the device senses hard acceleration, braking, cornering, or speeds in excess of a preset limit. The alarm can serve as a teaching aid, reminding the young driver or alerting an adult instructor. The sound can also be disabled to prevent a driver from knowing their behavior is being monitored. Recorded trip information can be downloaded to a home computer, giving parents an opportunity to review the information with young drivers.

With the increased use of EDRs in passenger vehicles, there has been concern about privacy issues--particularly since so many buyers are unaware their vehicles are equipped with them. Court cases on motor vehicle accidents have been decided based on evidence captured by EDRs, sometimes without the defendant knowing their vehicle was equipped from the factory with such a device.

Consumers Union is concerned about these and other privacy issues. In 2004 the organization issued a statement saying in part, "Consumers Union has been actively involved in efforts to secure greater privacy rights for consumers and to protect data that consumers themselves should control from getting into other hands without their consent."

We also believe the information provided by EDRs could be a boon to the development of both safer vehicles and roads when fairly managed and properly protected. To that end, we performed our test to see how effective aftermarket EDRs would be as tools to help parents monitor and teach safe driving. While the two units we tested are marketed largely for the same purpose and perform similar functions, they have significant differences in features, size, and price.

How we tested

We evaluated each model in three categories: features, ease of use, and performance. Tests were conducted in everyday driving on public roads and in controlled conditions at our auto test center. At the track, we compared speed and acceleration numbers from the devices against our auto-test measuring equipment.

How to install the devices

To use either device, it must be plugged into the On-Board Diagnostics II port that all new cars have been equipped with since 1996. Originally implemented to monitor emission system performance, the OBDII port is also where mechanics connect to a car's diagnostic network. From this, technicians can check systems as varied as emissions, powertrain, and safety equipment for proper operation. Most OBDII ports are located in the lower part of the dashboard near the driver's seat. If the port is in another location, a sticker should indicate where it can be found.

The small CarChipE/X is roughly the same size as two stacked nine-volt batteries, so it can be plugged directly into the OBDll port. The RS-1000 is proportioned like a stack of six CD jewel cases, and it must be connected to the port using a supplied cable. We mounted ours under the driver's seat and secured it with Velcro strips that also come with the unit. Care must be taken to safely route the cable without interfering with the driver.

What we found

Both products worked basically as advertised and were accurate when measured against our test equipment. Warning levels are preset at the factory, and each device allows those limits to be raised or lowered with included software.

An advantage of the CarChipE/X is that it can be used to reset a "check engine" light and to read diagnostic codes. (The numeric codes can be translated with information available online.) These features can help users make a more informed decision as to when an immediate trip to the mechanic is necessary. Tipped off by the OBDII data, mechanically inclined owners may even be able to perform some necessary repairs with further investigation.

Users can also monitor any four of 23 different vehicle performance parameters. However, much of that data, such as intake manifold pressure or fuel system status, might be of little use to anyone other than a professional mechanic.

The RS-1000 offers more features to make it useful to concerned parents, and its software is easier to use. As mentioned, however, it is bulkier than the CarChipE/X, partly due to the fact that it contains a built-in accelerometer. This feature helps this device be a better instructional aid, enabling the RS-1000 to provide instantaneous feedback to the driver.

The CarChipE/X relies strictly on information provided by the vehicle's computer systems and must perform continuous calculations to determine if a driver is exceeding acceleration and deceleration limits. This method results in a slight lag time before an acceleration warning is issued, creating potential confusion as to which action triggered the alert. The internal accelerometer in the RS-1000 also allows that device to measure cornering forces, while the CarChipE/X can only measure straight-line acceleration and braking. The alarm in the RS-1000 also grows progressively more urgent as a driver nears the limits, where the CarChipE/X simply sounds once an infraction is detected.

The bottom line

Any device that might encourage safe driving and help reduce teenage fatalities has appeal, so long as privacy protections are in place to prevent misuse of the data or surprise for consumers.

While the CarChipE/X and the RS-1000 both aim to improve teen driver safety, the RS-1000 has more features to monitor--and hopefully correct--bad habits. The fact that the RS-1000 can sense cornering forces in addition to hard acceleration and braking is key, and its instantaneous warnings and progressive alarm are more useful than the delayed warnings of the CarChipE/X.

We also liked the RS-1000's friendlier software and reporting. However, the RS-1000 carries additional installation challenges; its larger size makes it difficult to find a discrete location, the cable must be carefully routed, and there are optional connections to be made for seat belt and brake light sensors. It is also about $80 more expensive than the CarChipE/X.

The small size, lower price, and code reading capability of the CarChipE/X may be appealing to some buyers. But if the real goal is to discourage bad driving habits, the RS-1000 is a better choice.

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