It's every parent's nightmare. Each year in the United States, about 6,000 teens between the ages of 15 and 20 die in motor vehicle crashes.
But researchers from the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are working on a mobile app to tackle the problem.
For years, the center has designed programs that reduce young driver crashes and the resulting injuries and fatalities. Its initiatives include graduated driver licensing systems, a concept developed and championed by the center, which have been adopted in North Carolina and many other states. The systems are designed to give young drivers substantial practice under safe conditions.
Now, the center wants to make sure that parents have the tools to help improve the potentially life-saving practice when their teens get behind the wheel.
UNC safety researchers are the winners of the first Carolina Apps Competition, co-sponsored by the office of the UNC Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovate@Carolina. A Highway Safety Research Center team will develop a mobile app that will get critical safety information into the hands of parents and teens as they begin the graduated driver licensing process.
Barbara Entwisle, vice chancellor for research, said projects that turn research into useful products for the public are exactly what her office wants to support.
"We want to encourage Carolina faculty, staff and students to think creatively about ways their research can benefit the real world," Entwisle said. "The Highway Safety Research Center's findings will inform and improve the teen driving experience through an easily accessible and engaging mobile app. It's exciting to see Carolina-born ideas move out into the community." Arthur Goodwin, senior research associate and project leader at the center, said his team saw the app competition as a way to translate years of research for public use, using the advanced technological capabilities of smartphones to deliver individualized guidance to parents and teens.
Judith Cone, special assistant to the chancellor, said potentially the app is just a start, as supporting the application of faculty and student research is a key goal of UNC's Innovate@Carolina initiative.
"This has the potential to be a great model for how our university can use all of the technology available to us, to experiment and to showcase the incredibly important work being done here," Cone said. "Our only dilemma in picking this project was that the application pool was so impressive."
With the competition behind them, the team will now work with the Carolina App Competition selection committee to advance the project through the design and programming phase. And according to center Director David Harkey, it can't come a moment too soon.
"My 15-year-old daughter just got her driving permit," Harkey said. "I need this app."