Smart phone application developed in Hernando blocks text messaging while driving

From left, Justin Ruzinok, Ed Harrold and Gary Thomas teamed up to create the mobile application SMS Sentinel, which is designed with teens in mind. It activates the text blocker once the car starts moving to keep drivers from being distracted.

Photo by CHRIS PRICE

From left, Justin Ruzinok, Ed Harrold and Gary Thomas teamed up to create the mobile application SMS Sentinel, which is designed with teens in mind. It activates the text blocker once the car starts moving to keep drivers from being distracted.

SPRING HILL — The chime of an incoming text message can be tough for drivers to resist, even while barreling 70 mph down the interstate or navigating a crowded parking lot.

So when a texting driver drifted into Gary Thomas' lane in Hernando County last spring and nearly ran him off the road, it became clear to him that distracted driving had to stop.

"I was complaining and complaining, and I finally decided to do something about it," said Thomas, of Spring Hill, a home health physical therapist.

The idea motivated him to team up with two techies, Ed Harrold of Istachatta and Justin Ruzinok of St. Petersburg, to help people kick the texting-while-driving habit.

The result: The SMS Sentinel, a $2 Android application that blocks incoming and outgoing messages when the phone is in a moving car.

More than 50 copies of the app have been sold for Android phones since the product went on sale before Christmas, and it's scheduled to be available on the iPhone by March.

Dozens of similar applications have received attention in the past two years as news stories and television commercials bring publicity to the risk of texting while driving.

"People know the dangers, but when you hear (your phone), you just want to check it," Thomas said as he held up his Android phone. "It happens to me and to everyone else."

Harrold, an application developer for Who Me Mobile in St. Petersburg, said the SMS Sentinel has features that give it a leg up on competitors.

For example, Harrold, who has two teenage sons, said the application was designed with teen drivers in mind. For an additional $5 per year, parents can subscribe to a website that will notify them when their teenager bypasses the application to send a text. The site also reports how fast the car was moving when a text was sent.

"We tried to think of everything," Harrold said. "The bypass feature is important because it allows people to text, say, if there's a passenger in the car. But the parents will know."

Additionally, the application uses a GPS and accelerometer to activate the text blocker once a car starts moving and deactivate it when the car stops. Some applications require users to turn the application on and off before and after driving.

"You can just purchase this application and then forget about it," Harrold said.

Messages received while driving go to the message queue to be retrieved after the car has stopped.

Brooksville police Chief George Turner said his officers often pull over people who are driving badly only to discover they were texting.

"If someone is driving, it's obviously dangerous for anyone to do anything other than pay attention to the road," Turner said. "Especially texting because that requires you to take your hands off the wheel."

Thirty states ban texting for all drivers, and Florida and Ohio are the only two states that don't restrict drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the association, said technologies like the SMS Sentinel, combined with law enforcement, can help solve the problem.

"Technology is the problem, but it can also be a part of the solution," Adkins said. "You also need laws, you need employers to ban their employees from using the phone when they drive, you need the whole combination of solutions."

In 2010, the Florida Legislature rejected 17 bills related to texting while driving. Lawmakers have filed at least two bills to be examined in the session that begins March 8.

A study published in September by the American Journal of Public Health suggests that 16,000 Americans died from texting behind the wheel between 2001 and 2007.

Smart phone application developed in Hernando blocks text messaging while driving 02/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 5:59pm]

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