I’ll never forget my parents and their nervous expressions upon handing over the keys to my 15-year-old self—gripping the armrests with white knuckles, stomping the imaginary brake on the right side of the car, trying to keep their cool, but finally losing it—“You’re going too fast! Hit the brakes sooner!” And my rebellious teenager response: “I’m going the speed limit! Don’t tell me what to do!” 

It can be a long, stressful process. But Arthur Goodwin and his colleagues at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center have developed a simple way to help parents become better instructors and teens become safer drivers—with an iPhone app.

How to invent a helpful app

“Parents play such a big role,” Goodwin says. “They decide when their child gets a permit or license, what kind of car they drive, and what experience they get behind the wheel.”

To figure out the most effective way to help parents, Goodwin and his team took a closer look at how parents instruct their teens in the car. With help from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, they conducted a series of studies, closely following teens from the time they obtained their permits until the time they got their licenses. With permission from their subjects, the researchers placed cameras in cars to observe how teens drove and how their parents instructed them.

“The results surprised us—there wasn’t a whole lot of yelling or fighting,” Goodwin says. “The thing that concerned us was that teens weren’t getting the practice or experience they needed.”

Goodwin says some teens would get frustrated or scared and simply refuse to drive anymore. For others, the novelty of driving would wear off after a couple weeks, and they would ask the parent to drive.  Even for teens driving regularly, their practice often consisted of the same routine trips.

“Teens would drive to school and back and that would be it,” Goodwin says. “They had no experience driving on the highway, in congested traffic, or in bad weather.”

Goodwin says that gaining experience in those different driving conditions is essential to becoming a safer driver, especially while under the supervision of a parent or guardian. Goodwin and his colleagues started brainstorming ideas, asking questions such as, “How can we make sure teens are getting the right kinds of driving practice? What if there were a way to track the different places and conditions they drive in?”

Then someone said, “What if we made an app for that?”   

Like any good app, keep it simple.

For young drivers, acquiring a North Carolina driver’s license is not as simple as it was 20 years ago. 

“Back then, you could have your permit for just a few days and then get your driver’s license as soon as you turned 16,” Goodwin says.

Not  anymore. Today’s teenage driver must complete a series of requirements between getting a permit and a license. The Time to Drive app simplifies that process.

North Carolina law now requires parents to keep a log of the hours their teen has driven under their supervision. When teens are issued driver’s permits, they also receive paper and pencils to log their driving hours. But paper can get crumpled, torn, and misplaced.

“It’s much easier to track it with the app than logging it on 10 pieces of paper,” Tracy Heenan says.  She and her 15-year-old daughter have been using the app for over six months. “If you’re recording all that by hand, it’s scattered over multiple pages of logs.” 

Teens are required to log at least 60 hours of driving time during the permit stage, and at least 10 of those hours should be at night. The app logs all of this automatically, and that log can be sent to the parent’s email address and then printed.

If the driver hits the brakes too hard, the app will make a buzzing sound (less annoying than another outburst from mom or dad), but otherwise it does not make noise or give instruction. It gives a readout of the speed of the vehicle.

“I can look down at the phone to see how fast she’s going instead of leaning over to glance at the speedometer,” Heenan says. 

Goodwin says the response from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. One hundred percent of the participants in the beta testing said the app was helpful and easy to use.

“I definitely recommend it,” Heenan says. “It’s very useful and convenient, and it’s been a great way for my daughter to track her progress.”

The only complaint thus far has been, “When is the Android version coming out?” Goodwin says he and his team are working on it and they hope to release an Android version of the app this year.   

Arthur Goodwin is a senior research associate at the Highway Safety Research Center. The Time to Drive app won first place in the Carolina Apps Competition, cosponsored by the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovate@Carolina. The app was developed in collaboration with Sky Highways Inc. and can be purchased in the iTunes Store for $3.99. For more information, visit www.timetodriveapp.com.