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Public Roads - Winter 2024

Date:
Winter 2024
Issue No:
Vol. 87 No. 4
Publication Number:
FHWA-HRT-24-002

STEM and Transportation: Using Technology and Engineering to Drive a Safer Future for Teens on Roadways

by Sydney Cooper
A young woman uses virtual reality goggles and a steering wheel to simulate driving. An aerial view of a digital car and tunnel overlay the image. Image Source: © Jackie Niam / Artem Zakharov / AdobeStock.com.
Using technology, such as virtual reality, can help teen drivers improve their ability and safety behind the wheel of a real car.


Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show teen drivers (ages 16–19) have a deadly crash rate nearly three times as high as adult drivers (ages 20 and up) per mile driven. The National Safety Council declared that “motor vehicle crashes continue to be the number one cause of preventable death for U.S. teens,” and that crashes involving young drivers impact people of all ages. STEM—which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math—can be used to solve this issue. It is important to find a solution to this problem to save the lives of teen drivers and many others in the future. A few methods involving virtual reality (VR), autonomous vehicles (AV), and video games can likely be effective and serve as solutions to help decrease the number of motor vehicle crashes involving teens.

VR is a computer-generated experience that uses tracking of body movements and high-tech glasses to make the user feel like they are inside a virtual world. This links the technology category in STEM with the first possible solution. VR can be used to better prepare teens for driving in the real world, introducing them to the U.S. transportation system (e.g., neighborhood streets and highways) and how to interact with its elements, including signs and pavement markings, pedestrians, and work zone and emergency personnel while driving. According to Youth.gov, factors that increase the risk of crashes among teens are risky driving (e.g., fast driving and illegal lane changes), driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, distracted driving (e.g., eating and adjusting the radio), and driving with other teens in the car. These common risk factors are ones to simulate or expose teens to as well as other causes of car accidents. With placing headsets equipped with various scenarios in schools and places teens frequently visit (e.g., malls, arcades, and movie theaters), VR can familiarize teens with real-life driving experiences and depict road safety precautions as training to avoid dangerous situations.

A self-driving AV is an automobile with a driving/communication system and high-tech sensors that drives itself safely, so a driver does not have to manually do so. This possible solution uses the engineering component of STEM. AVs can be used as tools to teach teens how to drive and to help them drive more safely by being engineered to prevent dangerous encounters from occurring. For example, a modified AV that can support multiple levels of automation can not only detect other objects in a roadway while being driven by a teen, but it can automatically steer itself away from possible collisions with such objects as other vehicles, trees, mailboxes, bicyclists, and pedestrians. This vehicle can also be made to automatically slow down to the roadway’s posted speed limit and while traveling in bad weather. With making modified AVs available for use in high school driver education courses, State-approved certified driver training schools, and for purchase, teens can be taught the importance of paying attention while driving and being fully aware of their environment. This solution can also prevent accidents from happening much better than the cars driven now.

A young man talks on a cellphone in front of a two-car crash. Image Source: © Monkey Business / AdobeStock.com.
According to data, car crashes are “the number one cause of preventable death for U.S. teens.” However, steps can be taken by teens to help reduce that number.

Most teens love to play video games. More than 84 percent of teens (ages 13–17) say they have a game console at home or access to one. Ninety percent also say that they play video games on multiple devices like consoles, cellphones, and computers. This final possible method also makes use of the technology component of STEM and can be both effective and accessible. A video game can be defined as an electronic game controlled by a user with an input device such as controllers or keyboards. Like VR, video games can be used to introduce teens to the real world of driving and be helpful in promoting safe driving habits. A driver’s education game can make use of the latest technology and elements that teens have come to enjoy, including state-of-the-art and unique graphics, sounds, characters (with an opportunity to choose a persona and vehicle), sceneries (with an opportunity to view different areas and components of the U.S. transportation system), rewards (with an opportunity to gain points for exercising good driving behaviors), and real-time interconnectivity (with an opportunity to play the video game alongside other teen drivers).

Implementation of one or more of the solutions mentioned above—VR, AVs, and video games—could possibly and positively change the data regarding car accidents involving teens. Studies show that driver’s education classes reduce teen crashes. Implementing the solutions in conjunction with driver’s education classes can reinforce what happens on roads in a real-world setting, promote correct and safe driving behaviors, and prevent car crashes involving teens from occurring so often. This prevention can help build a better transportation system and save more lives.


Sydney Cooper is a junior at Westlake High School in Atlanta, GA, and will graduate in 2025.

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