Minutes after Janet Creaser steered a steel-gray Impala with a specially equipped smartphone onto East River Road on Thursday afternoon, the dashboard-anchor device began to squawk.
“REDUCE SPEED NOW!” an Android-intoned female voice instructed.
Creaser, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s HumanFIRST Laboratory, sped up — to prove a point.
“PARENTS HAVE BEEN NOTIFIED,” the voice chastised.
Which is the point of Creaser’s research — when teens engage in risky driving behavior such as speeding, blowing through stop signs, failing to buckle up or braking hard, their parents will receive an incriminating text.
Presumably, a pointed conversation will follow.
Researchers at the U developed the Teen Driver Support System (TDSS) smartphone app after nearly 10 years of work and a recently completed yearlong study involving 300 newly licensed teens from 18 Minnesota communities. The U is now exploring whether the app can be commercialized.
The TDSS-enabled smartphone automatically prevents teens from using their phones or texting while driving (except for calling 911), a critical safety component since distracted driving is a frequent cause of car accidents and deaths. In 2012, more than 3,300 people died nationwide in “distraction-affected” crashes, although researchers believe the number is likely higher.
Illegal in Minnesota, text messaging while driving is of particular concern because it diverts a driver’s visual, manual and cognitive attention. Consider this: Texting takes your eyes off the road for about 5 seconds, enough time to cover the length of a football field at 55 miles per hour.
Still, members of a burgeoning millennial generation appear to be tethered to their smartphones, whether driving or not.
Data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicate that a quarter of teens respond to a text message at least once while driving, and 20 percent say they have extended, multimessage text conversations behind the wheel.
Creaser, a trained psychologist and mother of three young children, finds these kinds of statistics sobering.
“Ultimately, we did the research because we wanted to reduce traffic crashes and deaths among teens,” she said. “We don’t want people dying on the road.”
In 2013, there were 38 Minnesota teens killed in car crashes, with “driver inattention/distraction” cited as a leading cause, according to Minnesotans for Safe Driving, a St. Louis Park nonprofit.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation funded the university’s two TDSS studies, which cost about $2.5 million. State traffic engineer Susan Groth said the question driving the studies was: “Would we really be able to scientifically show we improved teen driving habits and made them safe?”
Results are encouraging. In the most-recent study, the teens were divided into three groups — a control group that received no feedback from the smartphone, a group that received only in-vehicle feedback, and a final group that received both in-vehicle and parental feedback. They were tracked for 12 months.
If the teen violated good driving etiquette, their parents received a real-time text message. Parents also had access to a website detailing their teen’s driving “events and behaviors” over a longer period of time.
In the end, teens in the groups that got feedback from the TDSS smartphone were less likely to engage in risky driving behavior.
Parents liked it, too. More than 90 percent said they’d recommend it to other parents.
“That’s why this was such a great project, because we really were able to see through the data — they sped less, exhibited less-aggressive driving behavior,” said Groth, the state traffic engineer.
Several companies have developed smartphone apps to encourage sound driving habits, and some companies in the cellphone business provide apps that can track or even limit risky behavior, as well. But Creaser said that few, if any, are backed by scientific research.
The U’s Office for Technology Commercialization is now studying the TDSS system, and Creaser’s team hopes that a commercial version of the product can hit the market by the end of the year.
“We are constantly being asked by parents, ‘Where can I get this?’ ”
She said she’s also hopeful that such a system will be in place by the time her own youngsters drive. “I’ll have three teenagers driving all at once,” she said, as the smartphone chirped a warning.