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Using tech to curb deaths on Minnesota's roadways

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94 westbound, crash prone
This is Minnesota's most crash-prone stretch of freeway, a half-mile, westbound portion of Interstate 94 on the south side of downtown Minneapolis. Cars from multiple lanes and another freeway mix and merge where the roadway curves and dips, taking many rush hour drivers by surprise.
MPR Photo/Dan Olsen

The number of deaths on Minnesota's highways is at a six-decade low -- 421 last year -- due in large part to improved technology, experts say. There's a lot of technology just around the corner that will save even more lives.

As measured by crashes, Minnesota's most dangerous roadway is a half-mile stretch of Interstate 94 next to downtown Minneapolis.

There are lots of lanes, lots of traffic, and lots of unexpected slowdowns.

It has scientists and traffic officials thinking about installing a new piece of technology that will warn individual drivers, especially those in the right lane, about slowdowns ahead and help them avoid calamity.

Dangerous as this area is, it is not where most of Minnesota's road fatalities happen, said Max Donath director of the University of Minnesota's Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute.

Most road fatalities happen on Minnesota's rural roads, he said. 

The most common kind of fatal crash happens when a tired, distracted or drunk driver allows his vehicle to drift out of its lane and into a median or a ditch where it rolls over.

Technology already in use in buses and trucks could start appearing in cars in the next few years that warns the driver of lane drift, Donath said.

"The vehicle will have a digital map of where the edge of the road is, where the center line is and will tug you back into the lane so you can't just run off the road," he said.

Donath can regale a listener with other examples of crash-avoidance technology just around the corner -- gizmos that slow speeding drivers, shut down all cell phones except for 911 calls, or email parents at home if a young driver is violating Minnesota's graduated driver's license rules by being out too late or has too many passengers in the car. 

Then Donath slams on the brakes: technology is not a substitute for personal responsibility or adult supervision.

Max Donath
University of Minnesota's Max Donath, the director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute says technology, including the use of the TDSS or teen driver support system, a dash board mounted Smartphone using GPS, is programmed with warnings for young drivers about speeding, seat belt use, too many passengers, is a soon-to-be-available technology that will help parents supervise youth drivers.
MPR Photo/Dan Olsen

He recalls the crash earlier this summer of Minneapolis teens slamming into a telephone pole at 70 mph in a 30-mph zone in the wee hours of the morning.

"What were these kids doing out at that time of night?" he said. "Is that a technology issue?  That's not a technology, that's a supervision issue."

Two teens died in that crash. Vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death for Minnesotans age 1 to 34.

This is where Donath's University of Minnesota colleague Michael Manser weighs in.  

Manser and Donath are part of a team of kinesiologists, engineers, psychologists and others all studying ways to make cars and roadways safer.  

Manser said Minnesota's requirement of 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel is a bare minimum for young people learning to drive. He encourages more training. 

Manser said the ideal is driver training that begins at age 3, where the parent models responsible behavior.

"Not getting into fits of road rage, setting an example by being calm and courteous to other drivers," he said.

Manser, like Donath, is a fan of how technology will help reduce roadway fatalities. 

However, he said, there's potential for driver confusion from too many beeps, bells and buzzers as they encounter dangerous situations.

There's also the political or social reality. Many drivers don't want to give up control of their vehicles to systems that force them to slow down or even refuse to allow them to drive if they've been misbehaving.

Even so, Donath can't resist.

Research continues to show for all the promise of new technology, the seat belt remains one of the most effective life-saving devices. 

"You know to be perfectly honest with you, it wouldn't be a bad idea to simply have a transmission interlock that prevents you from driving if that seat belt is not in place," he said.

Seatbelt interlocks and other proven lifesaving ideas including lower speed limits, tougher licensing standards, using automated radar to ticket speeders and cameras for red light runners have all been proposed, but mostly rejected by voters and lawmakers.

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