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US friends devise smartphone app to prevent drivers from texting

Co-creator comes up with idea after daughter nearly hit by distracted driver

Two men from the United States, neither working in the tech industry, have jointly created a mobile phone application that they claim will prevent drivers from texting while at the wheel.

Erik Wood, originally from La Cañada, California, but now living in Seattle, came up with the idea when his three-year-old daughter, Eve, was almost hit by a car whose driver was texting as the pair walked home from a local park.

“It’s not like in New York, with all the cars honking and street noise,” Wood, a landscape arhitect, told the La Cañada Valley Sun in an article we were alerted to by one of's followers on Twitter.

“This driver was coming at [Eve], and I pulled her out of the way. Her car’s bumper was just a few inches away from my kid’s face,” added Wood.

A few days later, Wood called his friend Jon Lam, who still lives in La Cañada and works as a money market manager in Pasadena, and the pair decided to invent a mobile phone application that would discourage drivers from texting.

The result is Otter, an application that harnesses GPS technology to prevent messages from being received while the phone is travelling at more than 10 or 15 miles an hour.

“When we started, we looked around on the market,” explained Lam. “There was nothing on the market as Erik envisioned it. We saw some that had some kind of hardware; some other ones that didn’t have a GPS function. But we knew we could beat them on simplicity, price and effectiveness.”

Currently available for phones based on Google’s Android operating system, with versions for BlackBerry devices and Apple’s iPhone in the pipeline, Otter has various settings that can be used to either deter the driver from receiving a text, or prevent the phone from receiving them altogether.

There was some trial and error involved in getting to this stage, however. The initial version provided the user with three “balloons” that popped up on screen when a text was received, allowing the user to send back one of three responses, but as Lam says, “this didn’t eliminate texting, though, it just made texting ten times quicker, as my wife pointed out.”

The current version of Otter is based on an automatic response sent by the phone, based on Microsoft Outlook’s “Out of Office” reply function, and since the application was released a fortnight ago, it has gained 100 users.

So they worked on a secondary version where the message sent was automatically sent, modeled after the “Out of Office” reply in Microsoft Outlook.

The Otter application was released the first week of April and so far has attracted 100 users, although as Lam points out, “we’re not in this for the money.”

According to the La Cañada Valley Sun, a study on texting in 2009 by The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that the risk of becoming involved in an accident was 23.2 times higher for a driver who was texting than for a driver whop had no such attraction.

The study also found that using another electronic gadget, or reaching for one, increased risk by 6.7 times, and that texting distracted people from driving for an average of 4.6 seconds. According to our calculations, that’s enough time for a car travelling at 30 miles an hour to travel 70 yards.

The newspaper also quoted a simulator study carried out by Clemson University in December 2007 which analysed the ability of drivers to “stay in their lanes on a curvy road while they completed tasks,” which concluded that those using text messaging or MP3 players swerved outside their lane 10% more often than other drivers.

“If you’re going into a meeting, you can still feel connected to your texts, but you do it on your terms,” Wood maintains. “We’re promoting it as a tool. I think it’s pretty accessible to have this tool that someone can choose to use and do the right thing.”

The application that Wood and Lam have devised has three functions. One allows the user to activate Otter for as long as it is needed. Another causes the application to kick in when GPS data indicate that the car’s speed is over 10 or 15 miles and hour. Finally, there is a parental control function, where parents can apply the application to their teenage children’s mobile phones.

“What gets teens to text while driving is they feel the need to reply to a received message,” explains Wood. “Otter silences those notifications. If Otter is on, it will stop them from receiving the texts.”

When the phone’s user does receive a text, they can either have it send an automatic reply similar to an Out of Office response, or they can reply themselves, using one of the three “bubble” responses.

“Otter was never supposed to be a shackle; it’s supposed to be the user’s decision to use it or not,” concluded Lam.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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