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Summer 2012

Safe Teen Car technology targets risky driving behavior

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 3,000 teens, age 15–19, were killed in motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. in 2009. Per mile driven, teen drivers are four times more likely than older drivers to crash. In addition to having less experience, teens are more likely to engage in risky driving behaviors—speeding, cell phone use, excessive maneuvers—than older drivers. And they’re less likely to wear their seat belts, which increases the odds of injury or death if they do crash.

The Safe Teen Car provides drivers with audio feedback supported by an icon display.

In a NHTSA-sponsored project, the University of Minnesota and Maryland-based research organization Westat have developed a vehicle-based technology solution to reduce teen driver crashes. The team, which includes Institute researchers Mike Manser, Chris Edwards, Janet Creaser, Alec Gorjestani, Arvind Menon, and Craig Shankwitz, has recently completed testing of its prototype driver support system—called the Safe Teen Car (STC)—that provides feedback to drivers when risky behaviors are detected.

Before vs. After-Market

Because the STC project is focused on what can be integrated into future vehicles during manufacturing, the system is considered an original equipment manufacture (OEM) system. A number of OEM systems have been designed to mitigate the risk factors of teen driving. One example is Ford Motor Company’s MyKey system—standard equipment on nearly all Ford and Lincoln models since 2010. MyKey allows owners to program a key to limit the vehicle’s top speed and audio volume and give audio seat belt and speed reminders.

Alternately, a growing number of aftermarket devices—those used in vehicles after manufacturing—address the teen driver problem as well. American Family Insurance’s Teen Safe Driver Program, for instance, uses in-vehicle cameras to record hazardous driving events, transmit data to driving coaches, and send parents and their teens weekly reports. Another example, the ITS Institute-developed Teen Driver Support System (TDSS), uses a smartphone to give teens real-time visual and audio feedback about their driving performance and report unsafe behavior to parents. [Manser credits earlier work on the TDSS project with paving the way for the STC research team.]

However, many existing systems are limited by what they can do, adopting a “one-size-fits-all approach,” according to Edwards. For example, systems that set a maximum speed limit don’t take into account that speed limits vary with the environment, and a safe speed for a straight stretch of highway would be dangerous on a residential street or winding road. Also, systems that record behavior for later review don’t give the driver feedback as he or she is driving. “The breadth of what the STC [considers] is something that sets it apart from other systems,” adds Manser.

Like having a parent ride along

The STC system implements a combination of several existing safety concepts and utilizes the advanced computer intelligence of today’s vehicles to provide beginning drivers with information tailored to their needs and behaviors.

“The STC project was an attempt to determine how the manufacturer could build [a system] given the chance,” Manser says. The project, which wrapped up in late 2011, resulted in recommendations and final specifications for a safe teen vehicle.

The STC system, which is active only when the vehicle determines the driver is a teen, monitors speed, excessive maneuvers (such as hard acceleration or sharp turns), cell phone use, seat belt use, and passenger presence, then provides real-time feedback to the driver when it detects a crash risk factor.

When the driver exceeds the speed limit or a vehicle maneuver exceeds a certain threshold, the STC system issues warnings in the form of auditory tones, visual icons, and spoken notifications. The focus of these systems is on feedback and adaptation, not reporting.

Among the many options for these systems, Manser says the researchers considered how the information could best be presented to teens and how it functions. Because of the extensive human factors testing the team conducted, “We know this is a good structure,” he says.

Test drives

In spring of 2011, the research team carried out a four-week preliminary functional road test with teen drivers and parents to evaluate the individual driver feedback subsystems that make up the STC system. Those subsystems address the most common risk factors associated with teen crashes and are grouped by the type of behavior the STC is trying to affect—primarily cell phone use, excessive maneuvering, and speeding.

Research fellow Arvind Menon installs components of the Safe Teen Car prototype.

At the end of the study, the majority of teens said the system improved their safety, and most parents said they would recommend the system to other parents and teens. One significant finding involved the speed management subsystem, which showed a reduction in the levels of speeding.

The researchers used their observations to refine systems and methods prior to the start of a 10-week full system evaluation that began in July 2011. This study combined subsystems for a longer time period and explored if and how the STC influenced drivers to choose safe behaviors even after the system was switched off. The researchers also hoped to learn how acceptable the system was to teen drivers and their parents.

Thirty teens from Minnesota and Maryland participated in the field evaluation. Vehicle and driver data obtained directly from the STC included vehicle position, distance driven, posted speed limit, vehicle speed, occupancy, seat belt activation, time of day, and number of system warnings. Usability data were collected from discussions with parents and teens at the end of the study.

The final report, which will be published in late 2012, also documents the methods, findings, and recommendations of the entire project for NHTSA and other stakeholders.

More information on teen driver research at the ITS Institute