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A driver uses an iPhone while driving in Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes / AP Photo
A driver uses an iPhone while driving in Los Angeles. Damian Dovarganes / AP Photo

App keeps drivers’ eyes on the road by blocking calls

The Life: Creator of a smartphone app that stops people using their mobiles when driving has approached UAE businesses about using the technology here.

Every time Ciarán Hynes switched on the television, it seemed there was another report about a road death - usually involving a young person - caused by distracted driving.

Then Oprah Winfrey highlighted the subject, inviting on to her show drivers who had accidentally killed people, and the families of victims.

"It was really heart-wrenching stuff," says Mr Hynes, who at that time worked in PR and marketing.

But it got him thinking about ways to prevent road fatalities caused by distracted driving, which is now one of the top killers along with speeding drivers and alcohol.

He looked around at the technology that was available, tested it and found it lacking. But engineers he worked with told him if he could raise the money, they could build the technology he was looking for.

Mr Hynes, who is based in Ireland and the United States, duly raised US$1 million (Dh3.67m) via friends and family and set up a business called 10n2 Technologies. After three years of development, the company in June introduced its app designed to prevent people from using their smartphones while driving. Now, the firm is aiming to get customers in the UAE interested in the technology.

"What we want to do is to stop people taking their eye off the road and looking at the [phone] screen, whether they are texting, emailing, browsing, reading, Facebooking or, let's face it, playing Angry Birds," says Mr Hynes. He adds that he was recently appalled to see a Boston driver zipping along the road while watching a movie on an iPad he had strapped to the steering wheel.

The UAE has a particularly dismal track record when it comes to road deaths. In 2009, the United Nations identified the nation's roads as among the deadliest in the world.

Last year, 720 people died in traffic accidents in the UAE, including the international footballer Theyab Awana, who drove into a lorry while using his phone.

He noted that accident rates tumbled three days last year during a BlackBerry outage by 20 per cent in Dubai and 40 per cent in Abu Dhabi.

His company's app is simple to use. Once it has been downloaded, the user receives a unique code that configures the phone to 10n2's server. The administrator, who could be someone in charge of a fleet of company cars or a parent, sets a speed threshold of, say, 22kph.

The phone then effectively measures its own speed in reference to satellites and when it realises it is travelling above the threshold, the user gets a message asking whether he or she is the driver or the passenger.

If the phone owner claims to be passenger, he is sent a test that requires him to type in a sequence of letters that flash quickly and at different intervals on the screen.

"While that is going on, there is no way I could take my eyes off the screen," says Ronan Duffy, 10n2's Dubai-based director of operations.

"You cannot cheat it if you are the driver, your survival instinct is such that you want to look at the road. After a while, you become conditioned. You realise there is no point in trying. It changes your behaviour."

If the user passes, he is free to use the phone. If he fails, the phone is blocked as long as it remains above the threshold speed. The administrator can, of course, monitor all this. If a call comes in while the driver is on the road and the programme detects a hands-free headset, the user can make and receive calls.

Otherwise, calls are blocked and the caller gets a message saying the person they are trying to contact is driving and will call them back when it's safe to do so.

The service costs $6.95 per month for individual users and $5 to $6 per month for business users.

The company has approached businesses and policymakers in the UAE about the technology and the response has been "top notch", according to Mr Hynes.

As well as saving lives, the product also aims to cut costs. In 2010, researchers found that car accidents cost the UAE as much as Dh21 billion a year.

"Our ultimate objective is to have this technology on every phone in the UAE, so you could enforce a safe driving environment for everybody," he says.

lgutcher@thenational.ae

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