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Phone app silences texts while driving

April 15, 2010|By Seth Amitin

Erik Wood was walking his 3-year-old daughter Eve to their suburban Seattle home after an outing to a park in October when a driver nearly hit Eve.

“It’s not like in New York, with all the cars honking and street noise,” said Wood, a La Cañada High School alum and landscape architect. “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.”

The driver, Wood said, was text messaging while driving.

After a few nights of hard sleep, Wood called his friend Jon Lam, a La Cañada resident, and the two began a project: create a cell-phone application that would deter drivers from texting.

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“When we started, we looked around on the market,” said Lam, who works as a money market manager in Pasadena. “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.”

This month, Wood and Lam released their creation: Otter.

Otter is a cell-phone application that deters drivers from answering text messages or stops the phone from receiving them altogether at the user’s prerogative. The application is available for the Android cell phone. Wood and Lam are working on making it available for Blackberry phones and iPhones soon.

The original version of Otter was simple. When the user received a text, three automated response “balloons” popped up on the screen, and the user chose one of those responses to send back.

“This didn’t eliminate texting, though,” Lam said. “It just made texting 10 times quicker, as my wife pointed out.”

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.

“We’re not in this for the money,” Lam said.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute did a study on texting in 2009 and discovered that the risk of getting into an accident is 23.2 times higher for a driver texting than driving without a distraction. Using or reaching for another electronic device was 6.7 times as dangerous.

The study also found that texting took a driver’s focus away from driving for an average of 4.6 seconds.

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