U researchers tackle teenage driver safety

The Teen Driver Support System will alert parents if teens speed.

Danielle Nordine

Parents may soon be able to keep tabs on their teenage drivers by simply giving them a cell phone. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are developing a program called the Teen Driver Support System, technology that monitors a new teenage driverâÄôs every move and reports back to parents. The system employs smartphone technology to control the driverâÄôs cell phone so that when they are in the car, they can no longer make outgoing calls or send text messages, and incoming calls go straight to voicemail. The phone would also monitor the teenâÄôs driving and warn him or her if it detects speeding, missing a stop sign or other traffic violations. If the driver ignores the warnings, a text message is automatically sent to the driverâÄôs parents with the offense and location. The system has the ability to detect the number of passengers in the vehicle and wonâÄôt allow it to start unless everyone is buckled in. Under Minnesota law, teen drivers can have no more than one passenger under the age of 20 during the first six months they have their license, and no more than three passengers under 20 during the second six months. The law makes an exception for siblings. Max Donath, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute at the University, presented the system at a teen driver safety forum June 4 in Cambridge, Minn. The meeting also featured U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and other transportation experts. âÄúThis system is a tool to provide parents the ability to help their teens,âÄù Donath said at the meeting. Parents can disable the system when they are in the car so they can do the teaching, he said. Researchers are now working on the third version of the system and are conducting a study to gather reactions from teens and parents, said Michael Manser, director of HumanFIRST, a University program that uses psychology and engineering to better understand driver behaviors and reduce the number of fatal crashes. Next, they will study driver performance to measure the systemâÄôs effectiveness, he said. More teens die from car accidents than from any other cause, Lee Munnich, director of the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety at the University, said at the meeting. In 2008, more than 350,000 U.S. teens between the ages of 15 and 19 were injured in car accidents, and most of them werenâÄôt wearing seatbelts, he said. While he doesnâÄôt know when the system will be commercially available, Manser said the necessary technology already exists. Once researchers have completed studies of its design and effectiveness, the system could be available within the next few years, he said. Personally, Manser said he wouldnâÄôt want to make the technology mandatory, although that would be up to the lawmakers. Speakers at the forum emphasized the effects of parentsâÄô involvement in improving their teenâÄôs driving skills. âÄúDriving habits get passed down from generation to generation,âÄù Oberstar said. âÄúYou can change bad habits by having involved parents.âÄù Still, some teens think the system is excessive. âÄúItâÄôs an invasion of privacy,âÄù Tyler Elms, a 17-year-old Centennial High School student said. âÄú[Driving] is a live-and-learn thing, and you donâÄôt need to get parents involved every time you speed or miss a stop sign.âÄù Others said they would support the system as a temporary measure. âÄúI might be willing to use it just at first, just to get used to driving,âÄù Derek Jordan, another 17-year-old Centennial student, said. Manser said he hopes the system will not only alert new drivers to risky behavior, but will also allow parents to have more involvement, while building trust between new drivers and their parents. âÄúThe system really is designed to help teens reduce risky driving,âÄù Manser said. âÄúBut more importantly, its purpose is to help parents better understand what their teens are doing so they can sit down with their teen driver and fix these behaviors.âÄù