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A teenager passes a CD in a car while driving.

"Pass me Kanye West." Not paying attention to the road could be added to the list of what can cause teenage-driving accidents.

Getting smarter at getting safer

Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) Institute gets $16 million grant

By Patty Mattern

Published on September 13, 2005

Few things worry parents of teenagers more than when their children start driving. Statistics show their anxiety is well placed. Automobile crashes kill 6,000 teenagers every year in the United States, making car accidents the leading cause of death among 13- to 19-year-olds. University of Minnesota Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute researchers are developing in-vehicle technology that will ease parents' worries and save lives.

While some teen-focused, in-vehicle technology exists, the systems lack effectiveness, says Max Donath, director of the ITS Institute. The institute wants to create a better system that will save teenagers' lives and now federal funding will help. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) gave the ITS Institute, which is part of the University's Center for Transportation Studies, a $16 million grant over five years as part of the "Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)." The funding, a 60 percent per year increase for the ITS Institute, will allow it to conduct a wide array of transportation research including work on a system that aims to reduce crashes involving teenage drivers.

Other examples of ITS research:

>Efforts to reduce crashes at rural intersections by giving drivers stopped at intersections better information about oncoming traffic.

>Assistive technology that helps snowplow, bus and state patrol drivers navigate. This technology uses GPS systems that track vehicle location and communicate information to a driver in situations where low visibility or other factors create a risky driving environment.

>Development of a narrow concept vehicle that could ease traffic congestion is in the works. Enclosed vehicles as narrow as motorcycles but as easy to operate and as safe as passenger sedans could use half-width lanes.

>Methods to predict the likelihood of rear-end crashes on congested highways and the development of counter measures to prevent such crashes.

Four main factors contribute to fatal crashes involving teenagers: speed, aggressive driving, lack of seatbelt use, and alcohol impairment.

Out of any age group, teens face the highest crash risk, yet seatbelt use remains lowest among teen drivers, Donath says. A system that requires teen drivers to use the seatbelts when driving--a seat belt ignition interlock--is key to saving lives, and will be included in the researchers' Teen Driver Support System (TDSS), he says. "Right now cars already have everything needed to implement a seatbelt interlock system at minimal cost to manufacturers," says Donath. "We just need them to do it." Alcohol also plays a role in crashes. In 2003, 24 percent of the 16- to 19-year-old drivers killed in vehicle crashes were intoxicated. Another ignition interlock system--one designed to address alcohol use--could be used in the TDSS. Alcohol ignition interlock devices require the driver to complete and pass a breath test before the vehicle will operate. For teens if the device detects even the slightest presence of alcohol, the vehicle wouldn't start.

Along with the seatbelt and alcohol ignition interlocks, TDSS technology would provide feedback on vehicle speed to teen drivers in an effort to not only modify their driving at the time, but also change their driving behavior permanently, U researchers say. "We can educate a novice driver. For example, when they go over the speed limit, they will receive an appropriate warning," says Donath. A GPS (Global Positioning System) coupled with other technology on the vehicle would determine if the vehicle is traveling over the speed limit and warn the driver to slow down. In fact, this technology would allow the system to "look down the road" and "know" if a curve is coming on the road and then tell the driver to adjust speed to safely negotiate the curve. If equipped, the system could even block the vehicle from exceeding the speed limit.

Teens may welcome driving tips from a tech system (and they may not), but in addition to giving feedback to the driver, the TDSS system could also report back to parents on how their teen is driving. With such information, parents may decide to reward teens for good driving and introduce restrictions for poor driving.

The system could also go beyond reporting to parents and relay driving data directly to licensing authorities who could use the information for a Graduated Driver's License (GDL) program, Donath says. For example, a GDL program could require that a teen complete a certain number of hours driving with a parent. The technology on the vehicle could record those hours and report it, so that licensing officials know when to allow the teen to start driving alone.

"We have the monitoring capability to be able to allow drivers to progress. You are given more rights by proving you are following the rules," Donath says.

The possibilities created by the TDSS system sound good to parents, but what's the next step? U of M faculty and graduate students plan to conduct research that would determine what parts of TDSS would be most effective for teenagers. That means field-testing the TDSS system with teen drivers in a simulator.

Research involving human-centered technology such as TDSS forms the core of the research done in the ITS institute, Donath says. The institute also addresses issues related to transportation in a northern climate, investigates technologies for improving the safety of travel in rural environments, and examines social and economic policy issues related to the deployment of ITS technologies.

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