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Center for Transportation Studies

Technological assistance aims to reduce dangerous driving by teens

The tragedy of young, inexperienced drivers losing their lives behind the wheel resonates through families and communities every day. Despite making up less than five percent of licensed drivers, teens account for more than 13 percent of all passenger vehicle fatalities. But once kids leave the driveway, it seems there is little that can be done to regulate their behavior behind the wheel. Or is there?

Photo of teen drivers

Teen drivers experience much higher accident rates than other age groups, due to inexperience and unsafe driving behaviors. (Photo credit: AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety)

Recently, new in-vehicle technologies have emerged, aimed at curbing dangerous behaviors such as speeding, driving while intoxicated, and failing to use seat belts. Some of these technologies are commercially available, while others are under development at the University of Minnesota.

With support from the ITS Institute, mechanical engineering graduate student Shawn Brovold is developing an in-vehicle “black box” called the Teen Driver Support System (TDSS) that could help curb unsafe teen driving behavior. Brovold is collaborating with Intelligent Vehicles (IV) Laboratory director Craig Shankwitz, as well as with human factors researchers in the University’s HumanFIRST Program.

The project will integrate emerging technologies based on determination of vehicle location and road geometry via the integration of Global Positioning System data and geospatial databases with currently available technologies, including onboard data logging and, optionally, in-vehicle systems to detect alcohol use.

Teen drivers, according to U of M Law School professor Stephen Simon, are a good target for programs of this type because parents are able and willing to help ensure safe driving behavior. Simon, founder and director of the Minnesota Criminal Justice System DWI Task Force, has contributed expertise in traffic safety and legal issues to the project.

Beyond the sphere of parental enforcement, such a monitoring system could potentially be integrated with graduated licensing procedures for beginning drivers.

The system under development will take a three-tiered approach to reducing unsafe teen driving behavior:

  • Seat-belt/ignition interlocks and alcohol breath-testing can prevent operation of the vehicle;
  • Detection of excessive speed or other unsafe operation can provide feedback during vehicle operation;
  • Incidents of speeding or unsafe operation can also be logged for later analysis by parents or licensing officials.

Proactive support for inexperienced drivers

Among the most powerful aspects of the system under development is the capability to correlate a vehicle’s speed with its location. Similar devices have been tested extensively in Europe, but Brovald’s group is the first to evaluate this technique in the United States, and the first to apply it specifically to teen drivers. Systems which simply monitor and log vehicle speed are of limited use in this context, because local speed limits and road geometries are not known. The combination of speed and location will enable the prototype system to respond to unsafe driving or violations of local speed limits.

The ITS Institute’s Intelligent Vehicles Laboratory has previously developed onboard systems that use high-accuracy GPS and digital mapping to compute vehicle locations in real time—technology that is central to the SAFEPLOW technology-enhanced snowplow and the TechnoBus transit research vehicle.

Building on this experience, the system currently under development uses an onboard computer, based on the compact PC104 platform commonly used for embedded applications, to integrate speed and location data, determined by a GPS system. Speed and location can then be correlated with information about the road on which the vehicle is being operated, such as local speed limits and road geometry, contained in digital maps and databases. Future enhancements to the system may include the ability for the TDSS to interface directly with a vehicle’s onboard diagnostic system to collect data such as vehicle speed.

This location awareness makes it possible for the system to not only look at current conditions, but to proactively look “down the road” and evaluate sudden curves or other changes in road geometry—a common cause of run-off-the-road crashes by inexperienced drivers, especially in rural areas. When the system determines that the vehicle speed is too great to safely negotiate an upcoming curve, intersection, or other road feature, it will be able to proactively warn the driver and/or log the incident.

Combining different technologies to create a single integrated system that supports driver capabilities is characteristic of many ITS Institute research projects, says Institute director Max Donath. A significant portion of the Institute’s recent work has involved combining new and existing technologies to address specific safety and mobility issues.