DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co.’s new MyKey system should protect teen drivers from themselves, but it’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction between parent and child, safety advocates say.

The technology allows parents to program ignition keys specifically for their teenagers. And those keys can limit a vehicle’s top speed to 80 mph (129 km/h), while also restricting audio-system volume.

In addition, MyKey encourages seatbelt usage; provides earlier low-fuel warnings; and sounds warning chimes at 45 mph (72 km/h), 55 mph (89 km/h) and 65 mph (105 km/h).

While MyKey is a positive step, parents shouldn’t rely on technology to keep their teen drivers safe, warns Jack Peet, AAA Michigan’s Community Safety Services manager.

“We don’t want this to be a crutch, and we applaud Ford’s efforts,” Peet tells Ward’s. “We feel that parents are the role models for their teens, whether they like to admit it or not. We want to encourage parents to drive smart and set good examples for their teens.”

Peet likens MyKey to a variety of available aftermarket technologies that use a microchip embedded in a vehicle. The microchips restrict a vehicle’s performance, therefore shaping driver behavior.

But Peet warns such technologies can create a false sense of security among teens and parents alike.

“I liken it to deer whistles that you can put on your car,” he says of devices designed to prevent collisions by frightening deer. “Those things make people not as attentive to the deer problem when they’re driving.”

Ford says MyKey has the potential to greatly reduce teen accidents. Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president-sustainability, environment and safety engineering, cites a Ford study of four key areas that cause 60% of all teen accidents: speeding, space management, vehicle handling and hazard management.

“We took this data and started looking for solutions,” she says at a media event here to unveil the new system. “It’s really an innovation of existing technologies – the key and the ignition security system. Our engineers unlocked a new world of possibilities by looking at these systems differently so that now parents can program any key with certain driving limits.”

To encourage seatbelt usage, MyKey can be programmed to issue an insistent audio reminder that only shuts off when teens buckle up. The audio system also is muted until seatbelts are fastened.

“Because teens have the lowest seatbelt-usage rate, we want parents to have the option to turn the annoyance factor up a bit,” Cischke says.

To gauge the acceptance of the system among parents and teens, Ford contracted Harris Interactive to conduct a consumer survey, which yielded predictable results.

“Parents love the feature and teens, not so much,” Cischke says. “But more importantly, half the parents who said they would buy MyKey would give their teen drivers more access to the family vehicle. When teens learned that they could get more seat time, their opinion changed dramatically.”

The promise of more driving time caused the number of teens who disliked the feature to drop from about 70% to 35%, while the percentage of teens who liked the system increased from 3% to 24%.

“From a societal perspective, this can probably benefit all of us, because MyKey can help teens build important driving skills sooner, with more driving time,” she says. “We’re giving them a controlled experience.”

Limiting the top speed of vehicles not only keeps teens safer, it conserves fuel, Cischke says, citing Ford research that shows driving 55 mph, as opposed to 65 mph, consumes 15% less fuel.

“And other good driving habits like avoiding jackrabbit starts can help them improve fuel economy by more than 50%,” she says, noting the system also can be programmed to keep traction-control activated, therefore discouraging tire-eating burnouts.

But limiting a vehicle’s speed to 80 mph (128 km/h) is unlikely to circumvent most accidents involving teens, says Justin McNaull, AAA director of state relations.

“The crashes we look at aren’t occurring on open-road freeways going at high speeds,” he says. “Most occur during everyday driving, and most kids don’t log a lot of freeway miles.”

Plus, “a kid can still seriously hurt themselves at 75 mph (121 km/h),” McNaull says.

Despite his reservations, McNaull admits Ford is taking a step in the right direction.

“It’s appropriate for Ford to try it out on a vehicle, but it’s hard to say how much difference it will make.”

McNaull adds it’s unlikely many teen drivers will even have access to MyKey, as most drive older vehicles. He also cites AAA data indicating chime-based warnings and seatbelt reminders largely have been ineffective.

The software-based MyKey system will debut next year as standard equipment on the ’10 Ford Focus, after which it will become standard on most other Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles.

bpope@wardsauto.com