Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

U of M study on teen texting and driving targets rural Minnesota February 25, 2013

WE’VE ALL HEARD the warnings about texting and driving. You’ve likely even spotted someone texting and driving. I haven’t.

Interstate 94 sometimes seems to run right into the sky as you drive west.

Interstate 94 in western Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

But a brother-in-law, who is a trucker, recently shared a story about watching a young woman lose control of her car along Interstate 94 in western Minnesota while texting. Somehow she managed to keep her car on the road and avoid a crash. My brother-in-law claims the incident happened so fast that the driver never took her eyes off her cell phone.

Stories like that scare me.

Now researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute are undertaking a study of young drivers and texting practices in 18 Minnesota communities, most of them rural and Faribault among them.

I first learned of the study in a news brief published in the Faribault Daily News soliciting 20 newly-licensed 16-year-olds from the Faribault area to participate in the year-long study. Intrigued, I contacted Nichole L. Morris, a research associate in the U of M’s HumanFIRST program in the ITS Institute. She is working on this project, funded by the ITS Institute and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, along with a team of researchers.

My phone, not a smart phone, but with an important message.

My phone, not a smart phone, but with an important message.

The 300 teens selected for the study will be equipped with smartphones to collect and transmit driving data in real-time for their first full year of independent driving. Researchers will collect data until May 2104 with group data reported to MnDOT and then made public in early 2015.

“These results will hopefully shed light on what areas are most problematic for teen drivers, what can be done with our technology to improve the safety of teen drivers and what changes, if any, should be implemented to our teen driver laws to prevent more teen driving fatalities,” Morris says.

Eighty percent of teen fatal crashes occur in rural areas, Morris says, explaining why the project is targeting 18 mostly rural Minnesota communities. Faribault was selected for the study because of its population and low commuting rate. She declined to name the other 17 communities or any hypotheses to avoid adding bias to the study.

But, says Morris, “My hope is that we find some key answers to reduce crash and fatalities for teen drivers in Minnesota and nationwide. This is such an important issue because traffic crashes are the leading cause of fatalities for teens. The rate at which we lose our sons and daughters on the road is unacceptable and it is a charge to all citizens to help to become the solution to this problem.”

The passion Morris, who holds a Ph.D. in Human Factors Psychology, possesses for this project is palpable. “It is an exciting opportunity for parents and teens to be a part of the solution to end teen traffic fatalities.”

Eighteen communities in rural Minnesota are included in the teen texting and driving study.

The study is targeting rural Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

As of Friday morning, 216 Minnesota teens from the selected communities had been recruited for the study. About 10 more are needed from the Faribault area.

To apply, a teen must be 16 years of age, currently have a driver’s permit, receive provisional licensure between now and April 30, start the study within a month of getting licensed, drive at least 2-4 times a week, have no physical limitations that prevent driving and have parental permission.

Qualifying teens should contact Morris via phone at 612-624-4614 or email at nlmorris@umn.edu

Besides offering teens an opportunity to help find solutions to teen traffic fatalities, the project is also paying a $25 monthly incentive ($300 to be paid at the end of the year-long study) and providing smartphones with free monthly data, text and talk plans for a year.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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15 Responses to “U of M study on teen texting and driving targets rural Minnesota”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    Sounds like a great study!!!

  2. treadlemusic Says:

    Although the statistics are so high for the teens, it is the older driver talking on the cell that is a problem 90% (I have observed) of the time. Even the “Blue Tooth”/hands-free feature is problematic as the driver’s attention is not just divided but compromised, driving almost as though intoxicated! And we are all “out there” together!!! Ugh!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I certainly agree that talking on a cell while driving is a major issue. Many, many times I’ve seen these distracted drivers weaving, failing to signal, etc.

  3. Great story – I hope they get some good research and that it is somehow able to help STOP the practice of texting and driving…

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I hope something comes of this study, too, that will provide answers and solutions. I don’t know how people can drive and text. I have trouble texting solo, especially with my new cell phone. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

  4. Clyde of Mankato Says:

    Driving down from St. Peter yesterday a car passed us at about 75 miles an hour and then swerved all over the road for as long as I could see it. It looked like she was texting. But the car almost went off the road about 6 times. So maybe drunk at 11:30 a.m. or on drugs but I think texting.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Wow, that is super scary. Really super scary. I bet you’re spot on correct with that texting observation.

  5. Jackie Says:

    It’s always interesting to hear about studies that are going on that most of us don’t even know about. This one sounds like a very worth while one. I’m pretty sure I see people texting in their cars while driving EVERY DAY in Rochester!!! Men, women, all ages not only teens. Last fall a senior from Byron High school blasted into the back of a stopped school bus on a country road. She was texting….never knew what hit her, dead at 18. So sad! Just don’t know how it’s ever gonna stop… I hope the study helps before too many more are killed (the ones driving while texting and their victims)

  6. I will admit I am guilty of this. I try not to and will call instead and put it on speaker phone so I can talk hands free. Even so, it is getting scary while driving and seeing all the people texting and not paying attention!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I love you, girl, so please stop texting and driving. Promise me, OK? And even try not to talk while driving because that is also distracting.

  7. hotlyspiced Says:

    It’s so difficult for teens to stay away from their phones as they drive. They are interrupted constantly by texts and calls and twitter and instagram and FB updates. I tell my kids to switch off their phones when they go from one destination to the next but I’m not sure they do. Texting while driving is just so dangerous xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I understand the challenge kids, and adults, face with instant communication. You are a wise mom advising your kids to shut off their phones while driving. But, if they are like most teens, I doubt their cells are switched off. I used to refuse to talk to my kids when they were driving. I will now, but only briefly and not often because even talking or listening while driving is distracting.


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