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'U' study tempts Woodbury teens with smartphone

University of Minnesota researchers aiming to make safer roads are turning to Woodbury students for a new project - and a tempting offer.

Officials announced last week that Woodbury was selected among communities across Minnesota to participate in the University of Minnesota Teen Driver Study. The project outfits teens with smartphones that will monitor their driving behaviors as they take to their first year behind the wheel.

The lure, a "U" researcher said, is that teens chosen for the study will receive $300 and get to keep the phone - the coveted Samsung Galaxy S3 - after their year is up.

Nichole Morris, a research associate with the university's HumanFIRST Program in the Intelligent Transportations Systems Institute, said the project's goal is to collect data on young drivers in their infantile stage and use the information to create technology that can improve teen driver safety.

In 2012, there were 379 traffic-related fatalities in Minnesota - one-third of which involved teen drivers, she said.

"It's just not acceptable for us as a state to lose so many teens in traffic crashes," she said.

The project will employ high-tech study of teen driving behavior involving equipment installed in the teens' vehicles that will communicate with an app running over the smartphone.

The app, developed by a "U" engineer, will utilize a GPS system to determine how fast the teens are driving, what roads they take and whether they're wearing their seat belts.

Other sensors to be installed in the vehicles will monitor things like whether the teens are riding with more than one passenger - a factor that Morris said drastically increases risky driving among drivers in that age group.

If it all sounds like a setup to get the teen drivers in trouble, Morris said that's not the case. All data collected will be confidential and won't be shared with police or schools, she said.

"They don't need to worry that we're going to turn around and tell on them," Morris said.

As for the smartphones, she explained that teens are not to be interacting with the devices at all while driving during the project. Instead, the hope is that the participants will simply place the phones in mounts that will be installed in the vehicles "and forget about it."

She noted that Minnesota law restricts provisional drivers from even talking on phones, let alone using them to text - an activity all Minnesota drivers are prohibited from doing.

Morris said the goal is for researchers in the HumanFIRST program to apply the data toward "smart vehicle" technologies being developed at the institute.

"We really have to know, 'What's the baseline performance,' - how do teens drive when no one's there to watch?" she said. "That kind of information is really valuable to us."

Once researchers have a "naturalistic image" of normal teen driving, they can begin to synthesize that with research and development, Morris said.

The study is seeking 20 teens from Woodbury who will be receiving their provisional licenses between Feb. 1 and April 30.

Teens picked for the study won't pay a dime all year for the phones; Morris said the plans allow for unlimited talk, text and data. Though the university turns over the phones to the teens at the end of the 12 months, Morris said the service plan will be turned off.

Morris said families interested in participating should contact her via email at or by calling 612-624-4614.

"People are really excited to get their teens to be a part of it," she said. "It's been really great to see people in Minnesota be so impassioned about teen driver safety."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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