The statistics say it all: texting while driving now kills more kids than anything else.
"Six thousand people die every year in the U.S. due to distracted driving," says Tristan "TJ" Evarts, one of the founders of The Inventioneers, a group of teenage friends and inventors from two families in Londonderry, N.H. "Another 300,000 are sent to the emergency room. Most of those are teens."
The Inventioneers would like to help change that. The six teens — TJ, Jaiden and Breyton Evarts (ages 17, 15 and 12) and Paige, Emily and Kate Balcom (ages 19, 16 and 15) — have come up with an innovative way to cut down on those deaths and injuries. They call their invention the SMARTwheel: a special steering wheel embedded with sensors that can tell when drivers take their hands off the wheel. If a driver is only using one hand for more than three seconds, or if both hands are at the top of the wheel (a common texting position), the SMARTwheel lights up and emits a warning sound, reminding the drivers to put their hands back in the safe-driving positions.
Although the SMARTwheel is still just a prototype, it has earned the Inventioneers praise from President Barack Obama — who wants one for when his daughters start to drive — and a slot on the ABC television program "Shark Tank," where they were one of just 100 entrants selected out of 30,000 applications to appear on the show this season. During their segment, which you can see below, venture capitalists Robert Herjavec and Mark Cuban offered the teens $100,000 for a 30 percent stake in the company.
The idea for the SMARTwheel dates back to 2009, when the team was competing in the annual FIRST Lego technology competition. That year's challenge was to solve a problem related to either the safety or efficiency of transportation. "At that time one of our team members was just starting to drive," says Jaiden. "We found that distracted driving was a really, really big problem. That year, New Hampshire passed a law that banned texting while driving. We did some research and found that most distractions behind the wheel require the drivers to take one or both hands off the steering wheel. So we decided to come up with a product that would alert drivers when they made that mistake."
The "Shark Tank" episode aired in February but the final legal details of the venture capital are still being worked out, so the Inventioneers are just now starting to work with the Sharks to commercialize the SMARTwheel. But that doesn't mean they are taking things slowly. "We've set ourselves a pretty aggressive deadline there for getting the SMARTwheel out there," says TJ, who is taking a gap year between high school and college to help launch the product. "We said we wanted to get it out to people by the end of this year."
The teens are also committed to other outreaches to help reduce distracted driving. "People knowing us from 'Shark Tank' gives us a nice lead-in to teach them about the dangers of distracted driving," says TJ. "We're committed to inspiring our peer group, not only in the areas of science and technology but in safe driving."
They are also taking the message of safe driving around the state. "We've been invited to several events as a result of our being on 'Shark Tank,'" says Jaiden. "Last week were in invited to the New Hampshire Traffic Safety Conference. We got a standing ovation from the traffic safety officials and top traffic safety people in our state." A few days later they appeared at the New Hampshire High Tech Council's Entrepreneur of the Year Awards banquet, where New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan praised their invention.
The Inventioneers say the response to their television appearance has been amazing so far. Whenever they're in public, people notice them and say they saw them on the show. They also have already received hundreds of SMARTwheel pre-orders through their website. "There's a lot of need out there for the SMARTwheel and we're doing our part to get it out there," says TJ.
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