By Tad Sooter
The image is still frozen in Erik Wood’s mind.
The driver’s wrists were pressed against the steering wheel as her thumbs worked the keypad of a cellphone held in front of her face. She never glanced up as her car blew past Wood and his 3-year-old daughter in a Seattle crosswalk.
That near miss in 2008 brought Wood face-to-face with the danger posed by distracted drivers.
“I see it like it was yesterday,” Wood said. “That was when I started thinking, ‘How do we change this behavior?'”
His answer was OTTER, a smartphone app Wood developed with his business partners. OTTER, which stands for One Touch Text Response, has several tools aimed at keeping drivers’ eyes on the road.
The app’s key function is a speed-activated, auto-response system for text messages. When turned on, OTTER uses the phone’s GPS to determine when the user is in a moving vehicle. While the vehicle is on the road, the app turns off alerts and buzzers, and sends a customizable automatic reply to incoming texts. It also silences incoming phone calls unless a headset is enabled.
Other options include one-touch text responses and parental controls. Along with driving, Wood said some customers have found OTTER useful for tuning out texts in meetings, movie theaters and classrooms.
OTTER LLC launched the app in 2010. The software is available for download on Android, Blackberry and Nokia devices, but not on Apple’s iPhone, something OTTER is determined to change. The company launched a Change.org online petition this month asking Apple to allow the “text and drive” software on the iPhone.
Apple is known for its tightly controlled operating systems, but Wood believes the company can find a way to allow auto text responses without letting its guard down.
Wood points to traffic safety statistics to make his case for the importance of apps such as OTTER. Drivers are 23 times more likely to crash if they text while driving, according to Distraction.gov, a government clearinghouse for distracted driving information. Distracted driving accounted for more than 3,000 fatal collisions and 400,000 injuries in 2011. A 2013 study suggested texting and driving has surpassed drunken driving as the leading cause of death among teen drivers.
Wood said curbing the “epidemic” will take the involvement of big technology, automobile and cellular companies. He and his partners would like to see technology like OTTER’s come standard on new devices and be integrated into vehicles with smartphone compatibility.
“This goes beyond downloading an app,” OTTER co-owner Troy Niehaus said in an announcement for the petition. “It should just be a built-in feature on all smartphones.”
So far OTTER has done little to profit on its product. The app is available for free to Android users. OTTER does sell some “discreet” advertising, but Wood said the company’s main objective is to get its technology to as many users as possible.
He expects OTTER will eventually be bought out by a bigger player in the industry. Any interested suitor will have to prove it’s serious about combating distracted driving.
“They’ll have to show us they’ll have a real impact on this issue,” Wood said.