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


An aha moment at parent-teacher conferences March 5, 2011

EVER SINCE OUR TEEN stopped accompanying us to parent-teacher conferences, my husband and I have felt more open to asking candid questions about him. Not that we’re trying to talk about him behind his back, but his absence certainly allows us to ask questions we probably wouldn’t ask in his presence.

He’s a great student, near the top of his class. He’s taking rigorous courses, earns straight As and scores exceptionally well on tests. In other words, academics are not an issue.

So, then, you might wonder why we even bother to attend parent-teacher conferences. First, it’s important to show our son that we care about his education.

Secondly, it’s important for his teachers to know we care and to connect with them.

Third, I want to know what he’s learning, because I certainly don’t hear that information from him.

I’ll qualify that, though, by saying that this time, when our 17-year-old was helping me with dishes the night before conferences, I asked for an academics primer. I wanted a list of the classes he’s taking, the names of his teachers and what he is currently studying. Surprisingly, he obliged and I felt better prepared for conferences.

Just a note. I could have pulled his course information from a file, but engaging him in conversation about school seemed the better alternative. Also, I wasn’t completely oblivious to his class schedule or assignments.

When my husband and I headed off to conferences on Thursday evening, I wasn’t sure exactly what information I wanted to glean from or exchange with his teachers. Last time we focused on his future—his main interests, career options and college choices.

This time, though, a conversation with a friend several days earlier niggled in my mind. We were discussing our sons, who are both wired with strong science and math brains. Neither one cares all that much about engaging in social activities. My husband and I have worried for some time about our teen’s lack of interest in socializing and minimal participation in extracurricular activities.

About now, if you’re the parent of a teen, you’re probably thinking, how lucky to have that “problem.”

Well, as parents, we want a well-adjusted teen.

We were reassured by every teacher we asked that our son is well-liked by his peers, participates in class and socializes, has a great sense of humor that they enjoy, loves to learn, etc. In other words, they alleviated our worries.

While talking with his journalism teacher, I had one of those aha moments. My son, I realized, is confident enough in himself that he doesn’t feel the need to conform, to give in to peer pressure, to be surrounded by a group of friends. All the while I’ve been focusing on the negative when I should have been focusing on the positive, seeing the strengths in his personality.

Not everyone is interested in sports or theater or music, etc. And just because we as parents, as educators, as a society, think every kid should be intensely involved in extracurricular activities, we must also accept and realize that not every teen wants to be so involved. Not every teen is a social butterfly outside of the classroom.

My son doesn’t think like most teens. That’s OK. But he’s strong, smart, confident, inquisitive and more. When he focuses on a task, he wants his efforts to be invested in a real project, with real results. He doesn’t want to do something just to compete, although when he competes he’s very competitive. I finally understand that about him.

It just took asking the right questions at parent-teacher conferences to get there.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


What was I thinking when I almost said… January 6, 2011

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I NEARLY MESSED UP as a parent Wednesday morning.

“We had a pizza party in Mrs. Brown’s class yesterday,” my 16-year-old said as he pulled his backpack onto his shoulders.

“For what?” I asked.

“We won Toys for Tots,” he replied, explaining that his fourth hour prime time and trigonometry/pre-calculus class collected the most money to purchase Christmas gifts for needy children and was rewarded with pizza.

“Did you take anything?” I questioned, doubting that he participated since he hadn’t asked me for money.

“Fifteen dollars.”

That’s when I nearly said—but caught myself just in time—that $15 was “too much” to donate given my son isn’t currently working.

But, at the precise moment the “too much” phrase nearly tumbled out of my mouth, I realized the stupidity of what I was about to say.

Instead I praised his gift. “That was very generous. I’m proud of you.”

“Yeah,” he smiled, wrapped me in a tight hug and walked out the door.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling