Every school day, 16-year-old Meg Anderson, a freshly minted driver, makes the 45-minute commute from her home in Woodbridge, Va., to the Governor’s School @ Innovation Park. Then, in the afternoon, she makes the 45-minute trek back to Woodbridge Senior High School, where she is also enrolled.
Anderson calls the drive “nerve-wracking,” and said it inspires even more worry for her parents, who sometimes ping her with texts before she reaches her destination. But the safety-conscious teen, who has been drilled on the dangers of texting while driving, doesn’t want to answer when she’s behind the wheel.
“We want our parents to know we’re safe, but we want to keep our eyes on the road,” she said.
That dilemma became the inspiration for an app prototype she and five other Governor’s School students developed called “Block it Out.” The app would automatically respond to texts and voice calls with pre-set messages like “I’m driving.” It would also block out social media apps, like Twitter and Facebook, and even silences the phone, eliminating the temptation to even glance at the screen.
The app prototype won at the statewide and regional level in Verizon Innovative App Challenge, garnering a $5,000 prize for STEM education at the Governor’s School, a STEM-intensive program that draws students from the Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park school systems. Her teammates are Amber Thaxton, Sydney Williams, Isabel Madden, Naima Chughtai and Kat Crim.
The app prototype is now in a national competition, where it will be pitted against two other teams in the northeast region. If the prototype wins, the team will get to work with engineers to actually build it and will win another $15,000 prize that will go to the Governor’s School. The team presented the idea to a panel of judges over Skype on Thursday.
Felipe Gutierrez teaches the introduction to engineering class where students developed the app. He said he was impressed by the team’s ability to draw on their personal experiences.
Anderson, an aspiring engineer, said the app isn’t just for teenagers. The team designed the interface to make it look sophisticated so it would have broad appeal.
“We really think that it’s relatable to all drivers,” she said.
A Traveler’s insurance survey showed that while drivers are concerned with distractions behind the wheel, they tend to think other drivers’ bad habits — not their own — will cause accidents. According to federal statistics, 3,328 people died in distracted-driving crashes in 2012.
“The number of accidents from distracted driving is higher than it should be and we hope to bring it down,” she said. “It seems like distracted driving in most cases is so easily preventable.”
The program could have broader application outside of the car, Anderson said, and could be tailored to allow some calls through, while blocking others, all while locking the user out of social media sites. That could make it useful for students working on chemistry homework or adults racing against a work deadline.