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After a Tragedy, Teens Create an App to Change the Way their Peers Drive

5 students built Safe Speed in an effort to save lives


When 18-year-old Ethan Linnon from Butler Township, Pennsylvania, was killed in a car crash last year, the tragedy was a wakeup call to many in his community. For others, it was a call to action.

After the accident, students at nearby Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School in Cranberry Township– freshman Veronica Muth, 15, and sophomores Chris Virostek, 17, Luc Madonna, 16, Matt Esser, 16, and Giovanna Esposito, 15, came together to create an app that helps prevent teen speeding.

In their research, the group learned that a staggering 92 percent of teens report speeding while on the road. Tragically, more than a third of teen driver fatalities involve speeding, according to data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In the hopes of addressing this issue, Matt and his teammates developed Safe Speed, a national winner in the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge.

“Safety is more important than having the thrill of driving really fast on a road,” says Matt Esser, the group’s team leader for the project.

Taking new technology for a spin

The students had never built an app before and had zero experience in coding, but they knew they had to do something to help safeguard teen drivers. They also knew that smart-phone technology was the vehicle to address the epidemic.

“Our phones have more computing power than what the first astronauts [used to reach] the moon,” says Matt. The challenge for him and his group: how to harness that power to make the roads safer for teen drivers.

Designed to use Verizon Navigator’s global positioning system, the app works by both tracking the speed limit on the road and comparing it to the speed at which the phone is traveling based on its accelerometer.

The app alerts drivers when they are going five or more miles above the speed limit with an audio notification, giving them 30 seconds to adjust their speed before sending a real-time alert to their parents.

What’s more, passengers can empower themselves by downloading the app and using it when they’re not in the driver’s seat. If they are too afraid to speak up to their driver about speeding, their phone does it for them.

Driving forward progress on the app and the issue

Creating the concept behind the app involved not just demystifying smartphone technology but also learning more about the larger social issues related to teens driving.

“I’ve learned so much through this,” says Matt. “I’ve learned what technology goes into your phone and how pressing the issue of teen speeding really is.” The experience has also been a way to take an active role in addressing a community concern. “The death rate of teens in cars really needs to go down,” says Matt.

With a $20,000 prize from the Verizon Foundation and the opportunity to work closely with MIT developers, the group developed a demo of the app, which uses GPS to monitor the car’s speed. In time, the group hopes to expand the app’s options to send electronic notifications to parents and guardians to keep them abreast of their teen’s driving habits.

If you have your own bright idea or personal story about how to change the world with a little help from technology, the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge is open for submissions in August. You can submit your idea and if it’s chosen, Verizon will help you turn it into an app.

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