A new automobile ignition key can prevent teenagers and others from talking on cell phones or sending text messages while driving.
Invented by researchers at the University of Utah, the system is called Key2SafeDriving and is aimed at cutting down on road deaths. It relies on Bluetooth technology to wirelessly connect keys to phones.
"The key to safe driving is to avoid distraction," says Xuesong Zhou, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering who co-invented the system with Wally Curry, a former University of Utah graduate now practicing medicine in Hays, Kan. "We want to provide a simple, cost-effective solution to improve driving safety."
Motor vehicle accidents are the fifth leading cause of all deaths in the country. Among teens, however, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death.
Studies by other researchers at the university have shown that driving while talking on cell phones is as dangerous as driving drunk. Several states have banned phoning and texting while driving, particularly for novice drivers.
While statistics are difficult to come by, one estimate made prior to the rise in popularity of texting held that cell phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 3,30,000 injuries in the United States every year.
The university has obtained provisional patents and licensed the invention to a private company that hopes to see it on the market within six months at a cost of less than $50 per key plus a yet-undetermined monthly service fee, according to a statement released today.
Zhou says that "at any given time, about 6 percent of travelers on the road are talking on a cell phone while driving. Also at any given time, 10 percent of teenagers who are driving are talking or texting."
The setup could help parents secure lower insurance rates. "Using our system you can prove that teen drivers are not talking while driving, which can significantly reduce the risk of getting into a car accident," Zhou said.
If things go as planned, the technology may be licensed to cell phone service providers to include in their service plans, said Ronn Hartman, managing partner of Accendo LC. The Kaysville, Utah, company provides early stage business consulting and "seed funding." It has licensed the Key2SafeDriving technology from the University of Utah and is working to manufacture and commercialize it.
Hartman envisions gaining automobile and insurance industry backing so that Key2SafeDriving data on cell phone use (or non-use) while driving can be compiled into a "safety score" and sent monthly to insurance companies, which then would provide discounts to motorists with good scores.
The score also could include data recorded via Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites on the driver's speeding, rapid braking or running of lights, which are calculated by comparing the driver's position with a database of maps, speed limits, stop lights and so on.
How it works
The system includes a device that encloses a car key — one for each teen driver or family member. The device connects wirelessly with each key user's cell phone via either Bluetooth or RFID (radio-frequency identification) technologies.
To turn on the engine, the driver must either slide the key out or push a button to release it. Then the device sends a signal to the driver's cell phone, placing it in "driving mode" and displaying a "stop" sign on the phone's display screen.
While in driving mode, teen drivers cannot use their cell phones to talk or send text messages, except for calling 911 or other numbers pre-approved by the parents — most likely the parents' own cell numbers.
Incoming calls and texts are automatically answered with a message saying, "I am driving now. I will call you later when I arrive at the destination safely."