December 24, 2013

UTA students design app to help dial out texting while driving

Engineering and computer science undergraduates create a cell phone app that silences incoming texts and sends auto responses to let the sender know the recipient is at the wheel.

James Fielder admitted he occasionally used to text while driving, but now he’s reaping the benefits of creating a cellphone app to stop others from making the same mistake.

The computer science senior lead a team of fellow University of Texas at Arlington students to first place and a $10,000 prize in an AT&T “ It Can Wait” coding contest to create an app that discourages texting and driving.

The undergraduate engineering and computer science students — none of them had taken smart phone programming courses — beat out 25 teams in the second annual AT&T Coding Competition that took place during a 12-week period. They found out this month that they won.

The team’s app allows the user to set up an auto response that will intercept texts once a vehicle is going more than 15 mph and respond with a message like “Hey, I’m driving, please don’t text me.” The app silences all incoming texts while the vehicle is in motion so they don’t distract the driver.

Another feature allows the user to make a list of relatives and close friends who can receive a auto reply and estimated time of arrival based on GPS coordinates.

“It will text things like ‘Headed to UTA, should arrive in 20 minutes,’ ” Fielder said.

On the team with Fielder were freshman Keyurkumar Patel and juniors Zedd Shmais, Kevin Chung, Sidharth Goyal and Andrew Toscano. Goyal and Patel had to drop out when the project became too time-consuming.

The students found out about the competition through a friend who works for AT&T.

Trouble with Texas texting bans

Arlington City Councilman Robert Rivera said he thinks it’s “wonderful” that the students got together to create the app.

Rivera, a strong proponent of banning texting while driving, publicly vocalized his support in September 2011 when Arlington became the first North Texas city to approve the ban.

After participating in police ride-alongs and listening to community concern, Rivera realized how important it is to avoid catastrophes that can result from texting at the wheel.

“A couple of years ago, we literally had an Arlington officer hit in response of an accident on I-30,” Rivera said. “It’s preferred to have our first responders focus on preventable issues rather than preventable accidents.”

Texas has bans on texting for novice drivers and bus drivers and a complete ban on handheld cellphone usage in school zones.

In March, Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez told the Star-Telegram that he hoped Texas would soon pass a law to restrict texting while driving.

Texas lawmakers approved a statewide ban in 2011, but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it. In April, the Texas House approved legislation for a statewide ban, but it died in the Senate Transportation Committee.

In 2007, Washington became the first state to ban texting while driving, and now 41 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S Virgin Islands ban texting at the wheel, according to a government website on distracted driving.

Driving ahead

Shmais said he is terrified when he sees people texting on the highways.

“I never look at my phone and when I see people text I start honking,” Shmais said. “… A lot of people have a problem with it; they do it involuntarily.”

The group of students set up a reward system for those who allow texts to be blocked via their app. Businesses can sign up through a Web application that allows drivers to use safe-driving reward points in exchange for discounts and coupons at local restaurants, Fielder said.

Shmais said he couldn’t believe that AT&T accepted the app he and his friends created, one that they spent all their free time working on. He was so excited he even spent his portion of the money before he got it.

“I did spend some of it to buy Christmas presents, although I haven’t gotten the money yet,” he said.

Fielder applied to work for AT&T’s software development at its headquarters in Dallas after graduation.

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