PNNL scientist creates app to stop texting while driving

It's one of the biggest problems out on the roads today: Texting while driving.

It kills thousands of people every year. But one local scientist at PNNL may have the answer to stopping it in its tracks.

Dr. Mike Watkins is Manager of Applied Physics and Sensing Technologies for the National Security Directorate. Three years ago, he took on one daunting public safety project.

"People die every day from texting and driving. It's an epidemic."

So, he looked at that epidemic the way he looks at most things, through the eyes of science. He figured, if you can't get drivers to stop texting, maybe you can stop the phone.

Watkins says when drivers are texting behind the wheel, their typing pattern become sporadic, with long pauses and then short bursts of activity, indicative that a person may be looking up and down between their phone and the road in front of them.

"I ride my bike frequently to work, and there is nothing scarier than coming up to an intersection and seeing the person doing the head bob. You know that person may be looking at you, but they don't see you."

So, he's created a program to identify the typing pattern, and then respond accordingly.

"It could notify a teenager that this is dangerous behavior and that another warning will result in a message being sent to their parents."

It could also help companies enforce texting policies among employees. And the possibilities are almost endless when it comes to cell phone companies, app developers, and insurance providers.

But Watkins says he's "just excited that it's something that seems to be new, something useful, and that would be of use to society."

Watkins is now in the process of securing the patent for his technology. Next will come finding a commercial partner interested in further testing and bringing it to the market.