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Columbia targets teen distracted driving

By James T. Hammond

Published Nov. 16, 2012

Steve Leight, CEO of software developer 52apps, raises his smartphone beside his head, and says “this is the most dangerous thing a teenager owns.”

Steve Leight, CEO of 52appsThe company Leight heads was started by two teenage software developers from Arkansas, Brendan Lee and Chris Thibault, and it is teenagers they aim to influence with their new smartphone technology.

Their company is joining hands with numerous allies including the University of South Carolina, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, the state chapter of the National Safety Council, and others to raise awareness of the deadly toll distracted driving takes on teen drivers each year. And texting, talking and emailing on smartphones is one of the major causes of distracted driving, authorities say.

The Columbia-based company has released a new smartphone application that provides alerts to parents when teens drive while texting or talking on their cellphones.

The release of the Canary app, which will work on iPhones and Android phones, comes as the National Transportation Safety Board adds distracted driving to its 2013 target list for dangerous driving behavior.

“It’s a massive public health problem,” Leight said, noting that an American teen sends and receives an average of 3,300 texts a month, and frequently are texting when in their cars.

Citing behavioral research, Leight added, “When you hear that ‘ding’ in the car, it’s almost an addictive response to want to know what it says.”

“We wanted to build something that will change that behavior,” Leight said.

The new application, now being promoted in South Carolina and nationally, was developed by Lee, Thibault and three other University of South Carolina students.

USC President Harris Pastides said it makes him proud that the university is a place where entrepreneurial students can integrate what they do into real life.

“It’s not easy to win approval of Apple (maker of the iPhone) and the National Safety Council,” Pastides said. “I am confident this app will save lives.”

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Columbia, said that “the last two years, we debated texting and driving and sadly got nothing done.”

“You’ve been able to do what we were not able to do,” Jackson said to the teenage software developers. “We are excited to have this available.”

State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, said he actually prefers the technology solution to laws banning the practice.

“This is an example of entrepreneurial solutions to a serious problem,” Ballentine said. “Instead of criminalizing a lot of teens, they are trying to change behavior. Teens are frankly addicted to these devices and this gives parents a new tool.”