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Center for Transportation Studies

Programs & Labs

2006 Annual Report

A report of research, education, and technology transfer activities of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute at the University of Minnesota for fiscal year 2005–2006.

Research: Human Performance and Behavior

In-Vehicle Driver Assistance for Teenagers

Shawn Brovold demonstrates the Teen Driver Suppot System.

Parents of teenagers often worry when their child starts driving—and not without reason. Teens are among the most risk-prone groups of drivers, experiencing higher crash rates than drivers with a few more years of experience and having the highest traffic fatality rate of any age group. Several researchers with the ITS Institute are working to address this serious public safety issue by developing in-vehicle technology to monitor and correct inexperienced drivers’ unsafe behaviors behind the wheel.

Professor Stephen Simon of the Law School is leading the project, which includes ITS Institute director Max Donath and HumanFIRST Program director Nic Ward as coinvestigators and mechanical engineering graduate student Shawn Brovold, who has designed much of the technology to date.

According to Simon, what can be done among certain groups of high-risk drivers (such as DWI repeat offenders) in terms of controlling or monitoring their driving behavior is limited, but with teenagers, “a parent has absolute control over their car,” he says.

The research team’s Teen Driver Support System (TDSS) is aiming to address the primary causes of most fatal teen-driver crashes: speeding, lack of seat belt use, alcohol impairment, and driver inexperience. The system uses a combination of forcing, feedback, and reporting functions. The forcing function consists of an ignition interlock that will prevent a driver from starting a car if he or she is not buckled up or is not sober. The feedback function provides real-time in-vehicle warnings about illegal or unsafe speeds. The reporting function records vehicle information for later review by parents or licensing agencies.

An example of how the reporting function might operate is that the system would call or send a text message to parents if their teenager continuously exceeds the speed limit past a time threshold. This timing is significant, Simon says, because the quicker an intervention is applied, the more effective it is in stopping the behavior.

To date, the team has developed a prototype system for speed-limit feedback and reporting within Hennepin County. The system links the speed-limiting function to a digital map (derived from a road-classification database maintained by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and a speed limit database from Hennepin County) and a GPS sensor to determine the road on which the vehicle is operating and the road’s speed limit. If the driver’s current speed exceeds the road’s posted limit, an audible warning is used to notify the driver, and details (e.g., time, location, speed) of the infraction are recorded for later review.

The system’s ability to calculate the vehicle’s location means an even more ambitious safety feature might be possible: driver warnings and intervention based on road geometry and weather conditions. Young drivers are involved in a disproportionate number of “run-off-the-road” crashes because they lack the driving experience to recognize hazardous conditions until it is too late to adjust. By “looking ahead” to see if the vehicle is approaching a sharp curve or other potentially hazardous road feature, the system could issue a warning to inexperienced drivers before they get into trouble. In addition, the system could use Mn/DOT’s weather recording devices to get real-time information on current driving conditions, such as icy roads or fog, and adjust the car’s maximum speed limit accordingly.

Brovold points out that most vehicles already have various technologies needed for the TDSS built into them. Vehicle navigation systems could serve as a platform for speed warning systems. Some newer cars even have an event data recorder—a sort of “black box”—that records data leading up to and at the time of a crash (how fast the car was traveling, the seat belt status, etc.). Cars also have an ignition interlock that prevents them from being started if it’s in the “drive” gear. Automakers, who already install seat belt sensors, could combine these features to make a seat belt ignition interlock. However, these types of safety features have yet to be implemented or offered as factory options.

Next steps in the research are to continue testing the system locally for functionality, test attitudes about the system and how feedback is delivered with teenagers in a driving simulator, conduct multi-vehicle field operations tests, and conduct market analysis. The researchers hope to receive a start-up grant to build, install, and test additional prototypes. From the market analysis, they also hope to gauge the public’s interest in the system as well as learn how to package and market the product.

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