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Don’t touch that dial

Wallace M. Curry, Jr., MD ’98Alumnus invents system to inhibit cell phone use while driving

As a physician who receives frequent pages and cellular calls, Wallace M. Curry, Jr., MD ’98, admits he has answered the phone a fair number of times while driving. After observing a teen girl texting while driving one day, however, he not only re-evaluated his own behavior but crafted an idea to curb a dangerous practice among teens and adults.

Dr. Curry, a urologist in Hays, Kan., approached his undergraduate alma mater, University of Utah, with his concept – using technology to prevent the use of a cell phone by the driver of a vehicle. Through the collaboration, Dr. Curry and Xuesong Zhou, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Utah, co-invented the Key2SafeDriving, a wireless ignition key device that disables certain functions of a driver’s cell phone when activated.

“Everybody’s on their cell phone while driving,” said Dr. Curry, who, while developing the device, often thought of his two daughters who will soon be driving age. “This was prompted by everyday experience.”

Primarily intended for teen drivers, the system features a device that encloses the car key and is linked wirelessly (through Bluetooth for example) to a designated cell phone. When the key is extended, necessary to start the car, the device sends a signal to the phone, placing it in “driving mode.” In this mode, users cannot use their phones to talk or send text messages except for calling 911 or numbers pre-approved by parents. Incoming calls and texts are automatically answered with the message: “I am driving now. I will call you later when I arrive at the destination safely.” Since the device does not jam signals, passengers can still use their phones.

Knowing that some teens may try to thwart the device, Dr. Curry and his team built in a number of backup elements, including parental locks. Much of the system and its associated software package, in fact, is structured around parental monitoring. Attempts to circumvent the system by draining the battery, copying the key or switching phones with a friend, for example, can be discovered through the software system that not only alerts a parent if a child disables the connection or uses their phone improperly, but also notices discrepancies in amounts of driving time logged by the user.

Talking while driving is motivated by convenience. Key2SafeDriving subtracts the convenience. Dr. Curry believes such deterrents are more effective than government intervention.

“I think, ultimately, if you legislate that it’s illegal to text or use the phone while driving, it’s not going to stop people,” he said. “Incidence of cell phone use in states that enacted these laws is no different than before. People think they’re invincible, and people take risks. I don’t think a law itself will solve the problem.”

Stephen W. Hargarten, MD ’75, MPH, is Professor and Chairman of Emergency Medicine and Director of the Injury Research Center at The Medical College of Wisconsin, which is very active in policy related to teen driving, such as graduated licensures. Teen driving is an extremely high-risk activity, due to their limited experience, and the teen crash rate is very high, he said.

“Technologies that reduce risk of death and reduce distraction while driving in this high-risk population are encouraged to be explored,” Dr. Hargarten said.

An added function of the Key2SafeDriving system may appeal to adults. The software is capable of compiling data to create a safety score for enrolled drivers. Dr. Curry envisions this score being automatically sent each month to the user’s insurance company, which would, in turn, provide a correlating discount to those who abstained from cell use while driving.

Although the device is still in development, the inventors are contemplating how best to market it – to cellular providers who could offer it as a feature, or direct to consumers. Either way, challenging steps still remain.

“It’s very difficult from where we are now to getting it to market,” Dr. Curry said. “There are a lot of obstacles, more than people think, but it’s a step in the right direction. It raises awareness of a problem and that it’s solvable, whether or not it’s our product in the end. Just like seatbelt use has become the norm, we may look back one day and say, ‘remember when we used to talk on the phone while driving?’”

On the Web



View the entire fall 2009 issue of Alumni News. (opens as a pdf)





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