A smartphone app for teen drivers: U of M developing Teen Driver Support System to keep teens safe on the road

Danielle Wong, article author, headshot
Danielle Wong, Eastview High School

Ten percent of teenage drivers—ages 15-19—involved in fatal crashes in 2013 were dis­tracted at the time of the crashes, according to April data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

At least 3,154 people were killed in crashes involving distracted drivers, including those who were texting and driving, during the same year, according to the administration.

With technology being a poten­tial distraction for teenagers both on and off the road, researchers at the University of Minnesota have been working for years to fight fire with fire.

The HumanFIRST Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering is developing the Teen Driver Support System (TDSS), a mobile app and system intended to serve as a surrogate for parents when they can’t be with their teen on the road.

“It’s a tool—it’s not meant to replace parents,” said Nichole Morris, a research associate at the HumanFIRST lab. “It’s a surrogate to help facilitate communication between parents and teens when the parents can’t be in the car.”

How it Works

Nichole Morris, research associate of the HumanFIRST Lab, has hopes that the TDSS app will be ready for the market in the next couple of years.

The system is pre-installed in the vehicle and a smartphone is placed in a mount on the dashboard. The moment a teen steps into the vehicle, a small box located under the driver’s seat syncs to the smart­phone via Bluetooth. When the vehicle turns on, the app automati­cally launches—and once it does, the teen can’t turn it off.

“They can try, but it will come back,” Morris said. “They can try to open something else, and it’s just going to pop up in front of it. I call it a ‘zombie app’, because you can’t kill it.”

That means no Snapchatting, no texting, no phone calls.

A sensor on the teen’s seat belt checks if they are buckled and sen­sors under the floorboards ensure there isn’t more than one non-family member passenger—par­ents can monitor this through the system database—as are the rules for the first six months of driving in Minnesota. If the feedback the phone receives shows the teen is buckled, it will move on. But if the teen isn’t, an icon appears on the screen of the phone that asks the teen to buckle up.

The Teen Driver Support System gives teenage drivers a speed limit to follow on roads. (Photo provided)

While driving, the app uses the GPS locator of the phone to not only display the correct speed limit of that road, but also to pick up how fast the teen is driving. If the teen begins to exceed the speed limit by about 10 miles per hour, the background of the speed limit sign on the phone will turn yellow. If the speed continues to increase, the background will turn red and—depending on what group the teen is in—the phone will say, “Exceeding speed limit, reduce speed now.”

“It’s not [a] distracting warning, but annoying enough,” Morris said. “It’s like when your car’s chiming at you to buckle your seatbelt—it’s better to buckle than to listen to the chiming. Same thing with the warn­ing. It’s better to slow down than to listen to the phone tell you to slow down.”

In some cases, parents would receive a text from the app if the teen still didn’t slow down.

“That way, parents get [detailed information] in real time, whereas in other systems that use video, you don’t find out until a week later in a video that your teen was doing this thing,” Morris said. “This is really immediate. The hope is maybe when they’re around the dinner table that evening the parents can immediately address that issue.”

You know those mobile games where you tip or shake the phone to generate a reaction, such as rolling a ball or jumping? Those games use what’s called the accelerometer of the phone, which is what the driving app uses to measure the g-force of a car while it’s moving.

By using the accelerometer, the app can detect a spike in g-force from braking suddenly or taking a curve too fast. Do any of these things, and the app will tell you to drive more carefully.

All of these notifications—and the threat of parents being texted—can seem like someone’s trying to catch teenagers in the act of doing something bad. But Morris says “it’s really about trying to give [teens] the tools to drive safely.”

Developing the App

The idea for the app came about when Max Donath, a profes­sor and director of the Roadway Safety Institute at the University of Minnesota, had a vision about 10 years ago that smartphones were going to become the next big thing everyone could have access to, according to Morris.

Work on the TDSS app began nearly 10 years ago. Janet Creaser, a former research fellow at the HumanFIRST Lab, directed the research.

Morris’ main role was finding 300 teens from specific communi­ties in Minnesota to participate in a 2014 study on the system. But, they couldn’t just be any teen—research­ers needed 300 teenagers that were turning 16 and getting their licenses within a three-month window.

The teens were divided up into three main groups. One hundred teens drove with the mounted phone, and while data was being collected, the app didn’t intervene in any case. In another group, the app prevented teens from using their phones and gave in-vehicle warn­ings on their driving. The final 100 received in-vehicle coaching from the mobile app, in addition to parent feedback if warnings were not met.

The results of the study weren’t necessarily shocking, but they were definitely eye-opening.

“Teen drivers in the control group used their phone a lot. We didn’t prevent them from using it, and we monitored how often they used it,” Morris said. “Most teens could not get through a single trip without sending a text message of some kind.”

Teens who were not prevented from using their phones also were found to have a tendency to speed and perform excessive driving maneuvers, such as braking sharply or peeling out of a driveway. But in the in-vehicle only group, and even more so in the in-vehicle and feedback group, teens were found to have less speeding and excessive maneuvering.

Motor-vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Minnesota, one out of four crashes are caused by distracted driving, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Each year, at least 70 deaths and 350 serious injuries occur in Minnesota because of distracted driving.

Students, Parents Weigh In

While the app is being developed, 16-year-old Alyssa Dunn, a junior at Eastview High School, will be just fine having her driving monitored by the age-old method of parental trust.

“My parents trust me to not do things I shouldn’t be doing,” Dunn said. “But some of my friends’ parents have downloaded tracking apps so they can see where their children are at all times.”

Dunn adds that if her parents implemented the app, she would probably feel more “paranoid” while driving.

“I believe it all comes down to the parents who set a punishment,” she said. “If my parents set a stricter punishment I would make it a prior­ity to monitor my speed at all times.”

Kate Dullard, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, feels the notifications from the app could be more of a distrac­tion than originally intended.

“[If] you change the driver … then you may get a better result,” she said.

Karen Underhill, a 43-year-old Burnsville mother of an incom­ing freshman and a current junior, thinks that the TDSS app has potential.

“I don’t know if getting parents so involved is really the answer, since most teens hate it when their parents are involved,” she said. “It’s really up to how long the parent wants to incorporate it in the teen’s life, and how they discipline their kid when they do step out of line.”

Morris, however, added another perspective.

“If you’re a smart teen, you figure out the more you build up trust with your parents, the more privileges you’re going to get,” she said. “[The app is] really a tool to make both sides happy.”

Morris isn’t quite sure when the app will be ready for the market, but she has hopes that the app will be a low-cost way to facilitate teens to drive safely in the next couple of years. There are still kinks to be worked out, such as the fact that not every road’s speed limit is in the database, she said.

At the end of the day, all a parent wants is for their teens to be safe when behind the wheel.

“Knowing that my daughters are driving safely would definitely help me sleep better at night,” Underhill said.