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 road.cc'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.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.


Steve.v [1 post] 7 years ago

Is this going to be mandatory for all phones? It should be well done for producing this Erik and Jon.

nick_rearden [438 posts] 7 years ago

No proposal to make it mandatory but I thought utilizing the GPS network this way was a work of genius and you could see it happening. It needs a clever and bike-friendly country like Denmark to make it mandatory and everyone else will be forced to go, "Uh oh". Bring it on. Although, as my wife just said, supposing you're sitting on a train or the back of your limo. Jay-Z won't like it.

OldRidgeback [2875 posts] 7 years ago

It's a great idea. The US Transportation secretary Ray LaHood is introducing a big crackdown on distracted driving as this kills and injures so many. Using a cellphone while driving to make a call increases the risk of an accident by a factor of four, more than being just over the limit for drink driving as it happens. The data for texting while driving is not complete but is expected to be significantly higher. It makes you wonder whether this application (I hate that abbreviation app) should be made compulsory.

JamesStewart [1 post] 7 years ago

I think they have forgotten that people use phones on other modes of transport. If you went over 15mph in a taxi, bus, train etc. then it would also disable text messaging - totally ridiculous idea.

OldRidgeback [2875 posts] 7 years ago

Note that these applications can be disabled - “Otter was never supposed to be a shackle; it’s supposed to be the user’s decision to use it or not,” concluded Lam.

If the person is a passenger in a vehicle or using modes of transport such as trains or buses - the onus is on the user to switch off the application and doing so would be damning evidence in court for anyone sitting behind the wheel of a car who was subsequently involved in an accident.

There are other similar applications:

Key2SafeDriving software for mobile phones

Safe Driving Systems has launched Key2SafeDriving for general release for BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian powered mobile phones, with other operating systems and phones planned for the future.
Key2SafeDriving uses easy to install handset software and a plug-and-forget Activator that installs in the vehicle without tools. Activated when the car starts, the software automatically puts the mobile phone into Safe Driving Mode, disabling its ability to send or receive calls or text messages. It monitors, reports and regulates mobile phone activity while driving. Incoming calls go directly to voicemail and incoming text messages are sent an automated reply, indicating the recipient is driving and will respond later. Emergency call functionality is always enabled while the phone is in Safe Driving Mode, allowing the user to place emergency 911 or other pre-determined phone calls.

joemizereck [17 posts] 7 years ago

Bravo. Otter be a big hit.

Joe Mizereck