U developing safer car technology

Emma Carew

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the leading cause of death for Minnesota teens is traffic accidents.

In 2004 alone, 78 Minnesotans aged 15 to 19 were killed.

This afternoon, the University Center for Transportation Studies will have a seminar presenting in-vehicle technologies that could address factors that cause fatal crashes for teen drivers.

People aged 20 to 24 accounted for the second largest group, with 71 fatalities statewide in 2004, said Kathy Swanson, director of Office of Traffic Safety.

The three main causes of crashes, according to Swanson, are lack of seat belt usage, distracted driving/inattentiveness and speeding. Alcohol use is also a factor, she said.

One technology the University is developing will involve a computer system that can sense curves in the road as well as know the local speed limits. The computer would provide feedback to drivers when they begin driving at unsafe speeds, mechanical engineering graduate student Shawn Brovold said.

Additionally, the system would utilize alcohol and seat belt ignition interlocks, requiring the teenager to pass a breath test and buckle his or her seat belt before the vehicle would start, he said.

The alcohol ignition interlocks are available now, but are mostly used for repeat drunken drivers, Brovold said.

The idea for the project came from Professor Max Donath, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute.

“If you take a look at statistics, about 5 percent of licensed drivers are teenagers,” Donath said. “But they represent about 14 percent of fatalities on the road. This is clearly out of proportion.”

Brovold’s presentation will give an overview of the issues surrounding teenage driving and introduce the combination of technologies the University is researching.

“The big reason why we’re doing it is there hasn’t been a significant decrease in teen-fatal accidents in the past 10 years,” he said. “A new approach to reducing teen fatality accidents needs to be explored.”

Senior Law School attorney Stephen Simon said he brings the law and social policy perspectives to the project.

He said people working on the project are discussing whether parents, car manufacturers or the government would implement this technology.

Current systems, such as speed-tracking devices, have shown safer driving patterns in teens, Simon said, but such systems can have limitations.

The new technologies allow for more customization with features such as fingerprint identification, so parents can choose whether to subject themselves to the limitations, he said.

Donath said the project is in its early stages.

He said people working on the project hope to show insurance companies that these technologies change teen drivers’ behavior, so a financial incentive could be offered to parents.

Additionally, research and experiments must be conducted to test teenage drivers’ responsiveness to the technology, he said.

“There are many steps,” Donath said. “We’re basically at the beginning of this adventure.”