Q&A with… Scott Rownin, who created an app to halt texting and driving
Published 2:30 pm, Tuesday, August 15, 2017
WESTPORT — Five years ago, Scott Rownin embarked on a business venture he’s found more fulfilling than any other professional endeavor throughout 15 years in the workforce. He needed a change and brought up an idea for stopping texting and driving to his wife, considering entering it in a competition.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Just do it,’” Rownin recalled.
Armed with the support of his wife Lauren, the 41-year-old Westporter began work on his own invention to solve a problem he often noticed on the road. Soon his business, SafeRide, was born.
Rownin launched the SafeRide app officially last week, following a smaller test in March. The free mobile app works for Android and iOS phones and aims to help keep drivers stay focused on the road. When the software detects the Bluetooth signal of a car it’s paired with, it waits to detect motion consistent with driving and then locks the phone. The phone screen locks so that apps and text messages can’t be checked; rings and alerts are silenced to prevent distraction.
Driving-related functions, including hands-free calling systems, music and navigation capabilities, can be turned on beforehand and will keep working, and the phone will still work for emergency calls. When the car stops, the lockdown ends.
The app can be downloaded for free at gosaferide.com. On the website, users can sign up for an account and then invite a driver.
The app is intended to remain free, but SafeRide may eventually charge a monthly fee for a portal that would incorporate educational tips and interactive features. The company may also partner with insurance companies, who would license the product but provide it to clients free, and sell it to commercial companies that employ drivers and would want to provide the app.
Rownin, a Long Island native who has lived in town for 11 years, studied bioengineering and entrepreneurial management in college before starting his first job at an accounting firm. He soon moved on to management consulting and then finance, first as an equities trader and then in private wealth management. Along the way, Rownin and his wife Lauren found themselves in a crowded New York City apartment with their first child and began to look to move, focused on the right fit and a good education system.
Rownin was returning from a scuba diving trip to Rhode Island with his brother when he saw the sign for Westport along Interstate 95. He remembered one of his co-workers lived there and spoke of it fondly, and the couple soon visited and found their new home.
“We fell in love the first day we visited,” he said of the town.
The family has grown from Max, now 11, to also include Charlotte, 7, and the family has enjoyed their Coleytown Elementary School community. They feel there’s nowhere better to raise kids than Westport.
But a change was still in store for Rownin’s career — founding SafeRide — his perfect fit.
“Those two things were really very unfulfilling,” Rownin said of working in consulting and finance. “It was doing things that I knew I could do, but never really feeling like I was doing the right thing. Starting a business has been more fulfilling than everything I’ve ever done. Literally every day it’s different, and that’s what I love about it.”
Q: What was the inspiration behind SafeRide?
A: The specific inspiration is sort of twofold.
If my phone rings, I want to look at it. So driving down the road if my phone would ring, I’d be tempted or distracted...You’re driving down the road and you see people swerving into your lane and as they go by, you see them looking down, unapologetically using their phone. Oftentimes they almost ran into you — they’ve cut back into their lane — and now they’re still looking at it.
So it just seemed like there was a problem with human nature, and I recognized the same problem in myself.
If it rang, I was going to look. I knew enough not to engage with it, but it was still distracting.
Q: You launched officially last week. Where do you hope SafeRide will go from here?
A: Our goal is to get the technology in the hands of as many drivers as we can. We really see the path forward as relationships with the cell phone manufacturers and/or the providers of the operating system, so Apple, Google — to put it onto the phone as a standard.
Working with the automotive companies so when you get in your car the Bluetooth address of the car is one we already knew about, and we can recognize it without the person having to do anything.
And then ultimately, with insurance companies... we’re already starting to show data that it’s reducing risk. We talk to people that use it actively, and they tell us that their behavior is changed about two weeks later. They literally stop looking for their phone when they get to the light; they stop checking to see if they have new messages; they’ve been reconditioned. We think once we have enough data to prove that, that the insurance companies — and they’ve already expressed this — would give people a discount if they use it.
So we kind of want to put all those three things together.
Q: What’s it like combining a business idea with a public service objective?
A: It’s, sort of, I almost want to say a happy accident. I had an idea — I saw a problem in the world, I had an idea to solve it, and in pursuing it we’ve had so much support because we’re really just trying to make the roads safer.
I have two little kids, and they’re not driving yet but they’re going to be driving in a couple years, and you see the habits that we have and how that’s going to impact the next generation. It’s been really helpful to have started a business that has a moral benefit.
I’ll say it, it has its challenges because it’s a willpower most people feel like they have and they’re not necessarily willing to adopt something that’ll help them do it. They don’t want to recognize it. I always say it’s like Nicorette for texting: you have to want to quit. But for those that have embarked upon it, it helped them really quit.
So I’m hoping we can get it into people’s hands enough that they can see that for themselves.
Q: What’s it been like building this business in Westport?
A: Fantastic… When we started, there was a hardware element, and I used the MakerSpace (in the Westport Public Library)… When it was just starting, I was one of the first people on the 3D printers printing the prototypes and it saved me weeks upon months of iterative design where I would work up a design, come here, print it, test it, go back, redesign it. I could do that all in a couple of days where it would take me weeks and weeks of back and forth with suppliers if I did it elsewhere.
Beyond the space, there’s the community of ‘makers’ in the town — Mark Mathias, Bill Derry, who used to be the director here, Maxine (Bleiweis), who was the director. I don’t know the new leadership as well with Bill (Harmer) and Alex Giannini, but they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive of giving resources to people trying to do things that are new, and I’ve leveraged the space and the community. It’s been great. They’ve been really supportive.
Q: How are you spreading SafeRide locally?
A: Within Westport we do as many of the local events as we can.
We’ve been talking to driving schools in towns throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts and now starting on Long Island, and then building out to other states where the parents are engaged in driver training. We’re finding a really good reception. Most parents don’t even know there’s something they can do. They know the risk is there, and a lot of kids we talk to are worried about the challenge of driving and they know the phone is a distraction just as much as they don’t want to put it down and give it up… We’re finding that starting point when kids are just learning to drive has been very well received.
We’re also looking at some of the commercial endeavors that really can benefit from SafeRide; so you look at oil and gas trucking companies and that’s where we probably wouldn’t make it free — where you’re an employer and you’re hiring someone to drive your truck and they have to use SafeRide on their phone. They’re driving thousands of pounds of oil in their truck. There’s a huge public safety concern, there’s a liability.
So we’ve had a really good reception there as well.