UT grad drives technology to keep teens safe on the road

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by GARY REAVES

WFAA

Posted on November 10, 2010 at 11:03 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 11 at 12:06 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — Driving around scenic Salt Lake City, Ashley Alexander is like most any young person — the temptation to make a phone call or send a text message is ever present.

"I know I shouldn't do it, but sometimes it's just too tempting when you get that text message while you are driving and you can't wait to get off the freeway," she said.

But in her driver's seat, texting is impossible. As soon as the car is traveling more than 3 mph, her cell phone chimes and the screen says ZOOMSAFER.

Ashley's phone has been shut down by her tiwi, the latest invention of inthinc, a Utah-based high tech company with University of Texas business school graduate Todd Follmer at the helm.

Before he joined the company, their business was building crash data recorders for NASCAR.

"In 2001, when Dale Earnhardt died, they'd had four deaths in the previous two years," Follmer said.

Data from inthinc's devices helped in the design of safer cars, helmets and tracks. NASCAR hasn't had a single fatality since.

Now Follmer is steering the company to do the same thing for teens.

"The big leap we have made is looking at what behavior happens before a crash that we can affect using technology," he said. "Change the behavior — change the result."

The company's original device plugs into the car's computer under the dash and connects to a box on the windshield. When the driver does something wrong, it gives him or her 15 seconds to drive responsibly — and then it sends a wireless message to mom and dad.

"They are given a letter grade from an F to an A+," Follmer said.

The cell phone shutdown is an added feature that's almost ready for market. So if Ashley tries to send a text... "I can't call, I can't text. It's just a blank screen, and it won't let me do anything," she said with a laugh. "It's probably a good thing."

A person trying to send a text to a teen driver gets a message saying she received your text, "but is driving and focused on the road."

Engineers here hope to build this technology into a billion-dollar business, but Follmer also knows the personal cost when teen drivers make mistakes.

Just a month before he came to work for inthinc, his son's girlfriend died after her car hit a tree. She had been speeding.

"It's the number-one cause of death of teens, 6,000 teens a year, the number one cause of injury," Follmer said. "Over 400,000 kids get injured every year."

The inthinc technology is already in 20,000 commercial vehicles, everything from trucks delivering oil to the cars driven by hundreds of Mormon missionaries.

At $300 to install and $35 a month, it's not cheap; but if it keeps a kid's eyes on the road — and hands off the phone — it may well be worth it.

E-mail greaves@wfaa.com

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