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Women form company to curb texting teens and reckless driving

NEW TAMPA

Laura Myers was driving on Interstate 75 with her three sons when a speeding car darted across three lanes of traffic and cut her off. The driver barely looked 16. "I can see her face right now," said Myers. "She was texting the whole time she was doing it." I wish I could call that girl's mother, Myers thought aloud that day.

Well why can't you? her 8-year-old asked.

That was three months ago.

Since then, the Wesley Chapel mom has built a company from scratch. She created a website, ordered bumper stickers and purchased a toll-free number. Janis Labusch, her friend who lives in New Tampa, grew so passionate about the venture that she became a partner.

They launched ICUDrive.com in December.

The company operates similarly to several others around the country. Parents buy bumper stickers and place them on their teenagers' cars. The stickers feature a phone number and encourage other drivers to report any unsafe behavior they observe.

Such companies include GoTellMom.com, SteerStraight.com and HowsMyTeenDriving.net, with services that cost between $39.95 to $120 annually. ICUDrive costs $97.99 a year.

Teens sign contracts to avoid risky driving

Myers and Labusch have heard the statistics. They know that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Speeding and distractions, such as texting, are a big part of the problem.

Now, their mission is to prevent the type of unsafe driving that puts teenagers at higher risk for causing an accident, or for dying in one.

Bruce Murakami knows such tragedy firsthand.

His wife and 11-year-old daughter were killed in a 1998 accident caused by a 19-year-old drag racing down Hillsborough Avenue. Murakami is now helping Myers and Labusch promote ICUDrive through his nonprofit organization Safe Teen Driver.

"For me anything that helps to keep our kids safe on the roads, whether it's a simple bumper sticker or electronic technology, I'm a big supporter of it," Murakami said.

ICUDrive teens and parents sign driving contracts, agreeing to avoid risky behaviors behind the wheel. They pick a special word to be printed on their bumper stickers and used as an ID by complainers who file a report via the website or phone. The complaints go to a call center where reports are verified, then shared with the parent or guardian listed on the account.

The company rewards teens who go an entire year without receiving a negative report with a $10 iTunes gift card.

Different from similar companies, ICUDrive makes a donation of $1 per month per membership to a school or nonprofit of the client's choosing. Myers and Labusch hope this will encourage student groups or parent-teacher organizations to use ICUDrive as a fundraiser.

"We want to be writing huge checks," Myers said. "We want to be giving it back to the people."

So far, the partners say, interest has been high, although actual sign ups have not.

Carl Gennaro of Zephyrhills is their only client so far. He signed up sons C.J., 19, and 17-year-old Corey after learning about ICUDrive from Myers' husband, a chiropractor.

His sons are generally safe drivers, Gennaro said, but the service gives him additional peace of mind.

"It's nice to know if they ever do go out and start driving uncharacteristic from what I've seen that there are people out there that will help me know about it," he said.

One idea gets a lot of publicity, few clients

Corey Gennaro put the sticker on his car last week.

"I think it's a good idea," he said. "I'm more of a good kid, so it's not really a big deal."

Unfortunately for one Hillsborough County couple, good ideas don't always make for successful businesses.

Donna Graf was one of the earliest entries to the "how's my teen driving?" bumper stick phenomenon with her company Go Get Mom.

She was featured in Washington Post, Newsweek and an MSNBC segment after she launched the business in 2003. Insurance companies and elected officials alike all told her that the service was innovative and life-saving.

But the money never came, said Graf, who lives in Riverview.

"Everybody that heard about it, talked about it, (and) read about it says it's a great idea, a great concept," she said.

She launched the company because her son Michael was a 16-year-old with a shiny new license at the time. When he received the company's one and only negative report, Donna's husband, Jim, called him immediately.

"Michael, you just cut off a BMW coming out of Sonic," Jim said. Michael had just passed the E Brandon Boulevard restaurant less than a minute before.

In the end, the Grafs spent about $200,000 of their own money trying to make the company work. At its height, there were maybe 10 clients paying the $79.95 annual fee.

"It was an unbelievably ridiculous number considering the press we got," Donna Graf said. The couple dissolved Go Get Mom in 2006.

Labusch said she and Myers hope their company eventually makes money. But the higher purpose is making roads safer for their families and others.

They both have ICUDrive stickers on their own cars to help promote the business. They say it has changed their behavior, causing them to drive with more care and caution.

"You think twice before you pick up that cell phone," Labusch said. "You think twice before you tailgate or you think twice before you cut that driver off."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

.fast facts

Teen driving woes?

Check out a few online resources:

Distraction.gov: The official U.S. government website on distracted driving, including a downloadable brochure to help parents talk with teens.

SafeTeenDriver.org: A nonprofit organization founded by Bruce Murakami after his wife and daughter were killed by a drag-racing teenager.

ICUDrive.com: A service that includes bumper stickers for teen drivers' vehicles and a toll-free number and website to report unsafe driving, at a cost of $97.99 a year.

Women form company to curb texting teens and reckless driving 03/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 3:30am]

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