When four freshmen in Jill Hyatt’s gifted and talented class at Meadville Area Senior High accepted the challenge laid out by a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s contest last fall, they didn’t need to look far for inspiration.
PennDOT’s Innovations Challenge asked teams of students around the state to come up with a method for curbing unsafe teen driving without using traditional paid advertising, marketing and social media channels.
MASH team members Pallas-Athena Cain, Elizabeth Grove, Alexis Holt and Saskia Jager traveled to PennDOT’s Engineering District 1 headquarters in Oil City earlier this month to present Penn Points, the app concept they produced to curb cellphone use by teen drivers. The presentation proved to be the winning idea for the region. Today the students face regional champs from PennDOT’s 10 other regions as they deliver their presentation again via teleconference for Secretary Leslie S. Richards and a panel of PennDOT judges.
“We were just trying to get good habits into teens from the start rather than trying to fix them when they’re older,” team member Holt said of the concept’s origins.
Like Holt, each of the other team members could immediately think of friends and family members who commonly use their phones while they are driving.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much it does happen,” Jager said, describing how easily phone use becomes second nature. “You’re in the car, even just changing your music on your phone or just glancing at a text is distracted driving and that happens so much, even people’s parents do it on highways all the time.”
A glance around the classroom, the school hallways and the vehicles they ride in with friends and family was more than enough to give the team a sense of direction in the contest. Looking at the people all around them — and the devices in the hands of those people — the students didn’t need GPS to know which way the future is headed.
“I think it’s just really normal for them,” Hyatt said of teen drivers reflexively reaching for their cellphones.
As the team members interviewed older classmates, they found evidence to back up Hyatt’s impression. They were particularly surprised when a survey of dozens of students revealed that a majority reported spending more than 10 hours each day in front of one kind of screen or another. They were similarly shocked when two older classmates reported checking their grades on their phones as they drove to school.
They knew the problem was widespread and that safe drivers had to be cultivated from an early age, but how can that be managed when getting a phone has become a rite of passage even more important than getting a car? While vehicles remain out of reach until 16 at the earliest, phones are not only available to increasingly younger children, they are more and more often viewed as a necessity.
Armed with their first hand knowledge of how drivers’ devotion to their phones poses perhaps the largest danger on the roads for both teens and adults, the students performed an advanced maneuver: They came up with an idea that would allow drivers to use their phones to prevent themselves from using their phones while they’re driving.
“By using the app, it would disable your phone,” Cain said. “You wouldn’t be able to access it except for GPS, of course.”
The team compared the disabling function to the airplane mode found on contemporary phones and the “Do not disturb while driving” function introduced to iPhones last year. The team’s innovation, however, has to do with the “carrot” their idea incorporates to motivate teen drivers to actually use the technology that already exists. They knew it had to be tempting to convince them to voluntarily give up their phones for a time, so they went with something else teens have a hard time resisting: free stuff.
The idea, they explained, is that drivers will accumulate points as they practice safe driving, or lose points for unsafe practices, and those points can be converted to coupons or freebies at local businesses. After consulting with several such businesses, the students tried to pair what businesses want — free advertising to a young audience — with what teens want — savings on cool products.
By connecting to the car through Bluetooth — Cain mocked up a prototype of what the app will look like, the actual programming will be left to PennDOT if their entry is selected — the app will be able to keep an eye on whether the driver exceeds the speed limit or tries to use Snapchat while moving. Like many apps, this one would incorporate advertising from the businesses offering coupons as rewards for safe driving points.
“Their idea was that the day you got your license at the DMV, they would have a QR code so you could just scan it and get the app,” Hyatt said.
The team members were confident that newly licensed drivers would not only want to download the app, they would want to use it, too, even if it meant waiting until they arrived somewhere to post a status update.
“Kids’ll do anything to get free stuff,” Jager said.
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.