New app lets parents ask: ‘How is my kid driving?’

Sun SentinelSeptember 3, 2012 

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- You’ve seen the bumper stickers on semis and work trucks everywhere: “How’s My Driving?”

Now parents can ask the same question -- about their teens’ road performance.

The bumper sticker and smartphone app are the brainchild of Cooper City, Fla., father and mobile app designer Michael McManigal. For $15 the first year and $10 every year thereafter, parents register the license plate number of their child’s car on the website, howismykiddriving.co.

Membership comes with two bumper stickers that say: “How is my KID driving? Push Text my tag.” Drivers who have the free Push Text app downloaded on their iPhones or Androids can then punch in the tag number and send their thoughts via a one-way, anonymous text.

“This puts a little bit of yourself in the passenger seat as a parent,” said McManigal, who came up with the concept when, on a long July drive home from South Carolina, he noticed all the “How’s My Driving?” stickers and thought parents could use something similar. “Once (teen drivers) leave the driveway and turn the corner and they’re out of sight, no one’s policing them.”

Just days after its official launch late last month, the program is winning both accolades for ingenuity and concern from parents and road safety officials alike. The fear (aside from trusting strangers to be honest tattlers) is that asking drivers to jot down a license plate number and text their thoughts encourages one of the road’s most dangerous practices: texting and driving.

“What you’re asking people to do is text while driving,” said state Rep. Irv Slosberg, a longtime highway safety advocate who lost a teenage daughter in a 1996 car accident. “I applaud this father for doing something about teen driving, but I think it can be dangerous.”

The innovation touches a national nerve -- motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, who are four times more likely than older drivers to crash, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And they fare no better in Florida, where teens make up just 5 percent of the driving population but are involved in 9 percent of fatal crashes, state highway safety figures show.

That’s why safe driving advocates are quick to give McManigal’s idea kudos.

“I applaud this gentleman’s tenacity for creating a bumper sticker targeted toward the teen market. What he’s created is quite ingenious,” said John Pecchio, manager of AAA Auto Club South’s traffic and teen driver safety programs. “But we would recommend that he proceed with caution. Focusing on getting the tag number and texting the message is our only concern. It could add to the distracted driving dangers.”

McManigal’s hope is that drivers would be responsible enough to wait until they’re stopped at a safe place before texting, and either memorize or quickly jot down the six-number tag. But he agreed that many motorists likely won’t be so careful.

“That is an issue,” he said.

“Part of me likes the idea. Maybe it will make kids think before they drive aggressively or distracted,” said Edith Peters, traffic safety specialist for the Florida Department of Transportation. “I would like it better if it had a warning at the bottom discouraging texting and driving.”

In response, McManigal agreed to do just that, saying he would add a warning on the next batch of stickers.

He may have a more difficult time overcoming the complaints of new drivers like Sari Cutler, 16, of Delray Beach, Fla. Frankly, she doesn’t like the “How is my KID driving?” concept at all.

“It’s stereotyping. Not all teens are bad drivers,” said the Spanish River High School junior, fresh from getting a learner’s permit at the Department of Motor Vehicles office. “And if you’re texting about my driving, aren’t you being hypocritical by driving and texting?”

When Cutler’s mother, Hollie, expressed interest in the app, the teenager responded with another common concern: “If it’s an anonymous text, how are you so certain it’s not someone trying to pull your leg? It could be a revenge thing.”

But single mom Denise Zoub, of Boca Raton, said she would appreciate any feedback, positive or negative, about her 15-year-old son’s driving habits. Though she’d give him the benefit of the doubt if he disputed a texter’s version of events, the app would at least allow her to question him about it -- and let him know people are watching.

“A monitoring tool would be great these days,” Zoub said. “Once they’re on their own, you can tell them anything you want, but it goes right out the window sometimes, especially if they have their friends in the car.”

Handing a young driver the keys to the car, especially amid a backdrop of such scary teen driving statistics, can make any parent anxious. Just ask Janice Vasallo, a Pembroke Pines mother to two teens, including a novice 16-year-old driver.

“It’s scary when you can’t be in the car with them anymore, but sometimes you have to let the umbilical cord out a little bit,” said Vasallo, who is registering for the “How is my KID driving?” program.

She especially liked the possibility that a one-way text conversation, with the parent and not the young driver, could help dissuade potential road-rage confrontations.

“It’s safer for her to not be approached by someone, and it’s safer for someone she might have upset,” Vasallo said. “At least I would have a way to know how they’re doing. It’s that or put a camera in the car.”

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