September 10, 2013


Texting while driving kills more teenagers each year than drunk driving, according to a study released by the Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York. The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) plans a counter attack using one of the trends own weapons - a smartphone app.

"Safety is a big priority for our department," said Andrea Henry, strategic communications coordinator for the DOT. "We saw this as a way to encourage safe behavior in young drivers from the beginning of their driving career."

The department's goal is to develop an app that will block the ability of a phone to receive texts and calls once the driver reaches a certain speed, such as 10 or 15 miles per hour. The app would utilize the phone's global positioning system (GPS) to determine the rate at which it was traveling. In the case of teenage drivers, the app would also be connected to an online portal that will allow parents to monitor driving habits, such as incidents of speeding or sudden acceleration or deceleration.

"We are hoping that a parent logging in can review their teen's driving and have a conversation with the app holder and encourage them to drive safer," said Henry.

The portals would also receive a notification if the app was disabled. However, there would be a way for a passenger to turn it off, as well as a way to disable the app in the case of an emergency.

According to Henry, the department is currently in the process of selecting a developer, so the final functionality of the app is not yet known. The cost of development, which she estimates at about $100,000, will be paid with money in the safety and operational funds. Tentatively titled "TXTL8R," the app is slated for an early 2014 release on both iPhone and Android platforms.

Henry said that the feedback so far has been extremely positive. It is currently unknown how much the app will cost users, but the DOT has pledged to provide it to the 14- to 17-year-old age group free of charge, she added.

"Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death," she stated in a follow-up email. "Texting while driving just increases the risk."

According to statistics provided by the DOT, the average text takes a driver's eyes off the road for more than four seconds, enough time for a car traveling at 60 miles per hour to cover more than 350 feet - a distance longer than a football field.

In 2012 alone, there were 708 crashes in Iowa in which distraction by a phone or device was reported as a contributing factor. The 17 and under age group accounted for 101 of these accidents. In terms of total crashes, this age group, which represents less than three percent of drivers, accounted for more than 10 percent of total traffic accidents across the state, a disparity better understood by a 2011 Centers for Disease Control study in which 45 percent of high school students ages 16 and older reported texting while driving in the month prior to the survey.

Texting and driving is banned under Iowa law. However, if the driver is older than 18, he or she can not be cited for using a device unless the driver is stopped for another reason, explained Sgt. Scott Bright, public information officer with the Iowa State Patrol. Even so, since the ban was implemented in 2010, the patrol has written more than 200 citations for texting and driving.

"It's not a large amount, but the issue we're facing is that it is a secondary law. If the driver isn't speeding, not wearing a seat belt, crossing the median lines or something else, we can't stop them," Bright explained. "It's difficult to enforce."

Drivers younger than 18 cannot have a device in their hands at all while operating a vehicle. However, enforcement of this section of the law brings its own challenges.

"We don't necessarily know by looking at someone how old they are," Bright said. "We can't profile."

Though cellphones represent a key distraction for drivers, Bright said they are by no means the only distraction. He has witnessed individuals eating, reading and tweeting behind the wheel. GPS systems are growing as a distraction as well, he added, as more and more drivers take their eyes off the road to enter an address. However, with the 2013 fatality count at 188, the presence of multiple distractions will by no means dampen the patrol's support for the DOT endeavor.

"I think this app is a great idea," Bright said. "Any way we can save lives on the road way is great."

The DOT currently has no "hard and fast goals" for the app's acceptance, but Henry expects to have 10,000 users in the first year. Though the department will collect data on driving habits of different age groups, she stressed that all the information gathered will be stripped of any identifying details, and is in no way connected to law enforcement or the issuance of driver's licenses.

"Right now we just want to get people aware of their driving behaviors so they can make them safer," she said.