At first glance, Scott Rownin's Samsung Galaxy S III does not stand out. It receives and makes calls, chimes with incoming emails and text messages and displays a screen full of apps.
But when he gets behind the wheel and hits the road, the smartphone changes. A few seconds after he shifts the gear into drive, the phone falls silent and the apps on its home screen vanish, replaced by a shield with a winding road and the words "Safe- Ride." Tapping the screen or pressing the home button will not restore the device's normal settings. Its screen and hardware buttons will be disabled and audio muted as long as he is driving.
The lockdown of Rownin's phone is not a glitch; it is by design. His phone is temporarily disabled because it is using SafeRide, a new program the Westport resident has developed. It locks a phone automatically when a user is operating a vehicle with SafeRide hardware. It consists of an approximately two-and-a-half-inch by one-inch device that plugs into a vehicle's cigarette-lighter console and an app on the driver's phone. The phone and the plugged-in device are linked by Bluetooth wireless-communication technology, which allows the phone to detect when the SafeRide beacon is within range. SafeRide-equipped phones work normally when users are not driving and do not interfere with passengers' phones.
"It's like nicorette for texting," Rownin said of SafeRide during a demo last week in downtown Westport. "The benefit there is that all of those little dings that make you want to grab your phone and see who just texted or emailed you go away. Eventually, you sort of kick the habit and move on."
SafeRide is compatible with most mobile devices running Google's Android operating software. Rownin said he eventually plans to make SafeRide available for BlackBerrys and Windows phones and possibly for Apple devices. He is targeting a July release for the Android version, with a suggested retail price of $49.95.
Rownin's product aims to combat an epidemic of distracted driving. At any time, about 660,000 drivers are talking on hand-held cell phones, equating to five percent of all American motorists during any "typical daylight moment," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Forty-eight percent of drivers said they answer their cell phones while driving at least some of the time, and 58 percent continue to drive after answering the call, NHTSA also reports.
Transportation officials are especially concerned about texting while driving because it involves manual, visual and cognitive interaction, the three major forms of driver distraction.
"What we do know is that anywhere you go you can certainly observe drivers engaging in this behavior," said Aaron Swanson, a planner in the state Department of Transportation's Office of Highway Safety. "It's everywhere, it's prevalent and it's dangerous."
Distracted driving is particularly pronounced among young drivers. Forty-nine percent of 21 to 24-year-olds and 44 percent of 18 to 20-year-olds said they have sent a text message or email while driving, according to a 2011 NHTSA survey.
"For teenagers especially, I think this is crucial," Rownin said. "The phone's in their hand, and they're always looking to see who texted them and who messaged them. This is a way to stop that behavior when they're driving."
SafeRide is not the first product that tries to mitigate distracted-driving. A number of apps, as well as products that connect to a vehicle's OBD-II port, seek to disable drivers' phones. But Rownin argued that those competitors, especially the app-only solutions, have a number of drawbacks, such as an inability to predictably determine if a user is driving or a passenger in another vehicle. That shortcoming can be offset with an "unlock code," but that feature can be counterproductive because users may unlock their phones when they get behind the wheel.
In contrast, Rownin has positioned SafeRide as a more intuitive product that is activated only by user motion "consistent" with driving. But he said that it is not overly sensitive. The product keeps working during "normal" traffic conditions, so the phone will not unlock if a driver stops at a red light.
Once it is plugged in, the hardware is intended to stay ensconced in the vehicle. To discourage its removal, it includes a charging port for other devices.
SafeRide's system administration settings can be customized to track usage. A parent, for instance, could set up a "flexible alert system," which would check for activity periodically or on a customized basis and send a text message if SafeRide were disabled or removed. Such a setup would essentially preclude a teen driver from taking out the device without the parent noticing, although Rownin acknowledged that some parents may not want to exercise that level of oversight over their children's driving.
SafeRide allows 911 calls, which are made when the user swipes a "distinctive pattern" on the screen to unlock the interface. It then initiates a 10-second countdown, before it calls emergency services.
It also permits an administrator to enable navigation apps. Bluetooth headsets and in-dash systems will work as well, if they are controlled by voice commands or separate hardware.
Aside from cell-phone use, SafeRide does not track any driver behavior.
"It was designed to be unobtrusive," Rownin said. "It's going to sit here and not call attention to itself. It's really meant to be put in and almost forgotten."
Rownin, 37, works in finance, and is married with two children, ages 3 and 7. He said SafeRide taps into his entrepreneurial and technical sensibilities. A Long Island native, he has invented contraptions since he was in pre-school and holds degrees in engineering and economics from the University of Pennsylvania.
"I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur," he said. "I always wanted to take an invention of mine and bring it to market."
After reading in January 2012 about Walmart's Get on the Shelf competition, which asked entrants to submit their products for possible placement in the big-box retailer's stores, Rownin began work on SafeRide. He did not win the competition, but he was still motivated to push ahead with the product.
SafeRide LLC comprises Rownin, its president, and a silent partner. To assist in product development, he has hired a number of freelancers, including an industrial designer, a mechanical engineer and several software developers.
Rownin oversees "high-level" design and functionality. That involvement is often hands-on. He has become a regular in the Maker Space at the Westport Public Library where he creates SafeRide device prototypes on a 3-D printer.
SafeRide has already attracted praise -- and questions -- from several transportation experts.
"It's a great idea because it has the potential to save some lives and reduce accidents," said Board of Finance member John Pincavage, who has more than 40 years' experience as an analyst and banker on Wall Street specializing in transportation ventures. "The problem is going to be the implementation and how extensive the implementation is. The reason I question the implementation is because it flies in the face of human nature."
Rownin responded that he recognizes that changing ingrained driving habits will take time. SafeRide, he said, can play an important role in facilitating that process.
"A good part of what we're trying to accomplish is educating both teenagers and parents that using their phones while they're driving is a habit that they need to quit," he added. "Hopefully the parents will want to set a good example for their kids and use SafeRide as well. And, above all, we hope that they'll also see that they don't want to be driving with distractions."
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`MAKE' IT A CREATIVE DAY
Scott Rownin will demonstrate SafeRide at the second annual Westport Mini Maker Faire, which will be held at the Westport Public Library and Jesup Green on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The event will also feature the latest in 3-D printing, Arduino board and Raspberry Pi applications, ham radios, DIY biology, computer-assisted drawing demonstrations, woodworking, vintage electronics, robotics, remote-controlled aircraft, student projects, unusual tools and machines, composting and rocketry.
A $1,000 prize will be awarded by the Awesome Foundation CT to an exhibitor whose work best exemplifies the Maker Faire principles of innovation, experimentation and craftsmanship. For more information, visit www.awesomect.org/makerfaire
For more details about the Westport Mini Maker Faire, visit http://bit.ly/126U4J0
For more information about SafeRide, visit www.GoSafeRide.com