On May 8, 2008, Dave Sueper was driving to a business meeting when he was struck and killed by a distracted teenage driver who had run a red light. Scott Tibbitts, a chemical engineer and space entrepreneur who made motors for NASA, was the person Sueper was scheduled to meet that tragic morning, and he was deeply affected when he learned about the accident. Like Sueper, he was a father of two, and as an engineer he became fixated on finding a way to prevent another death from distracted driving.
He thought, “There has got to be something that will fix this technically,” Tibbitts recalled to Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric, “and this feeling — it just wouldn’t let go.” He had recently sold his space company, Starsys Research Corp., and was looking for a new professional challenge. He soon committed himself to finding a solution to the growing epidemic of texting while driving.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, cellphones are involved in 1.6 million auto crashes each year that cause a half million injuries and take 6,000 lives. Texting while driving has replaced drinking and driving as the leading cause of teen vehicular death, responsible for 20 percent of all teen highway fatalities in the U.S. There have been several attempts to curb this disturbing trend, most often with the use of apps on phones that tap into GPS signals to detect when a cellphone is traveling more than 10 miles per hour and disable distracting features on the phone. But these apps can easily be overruled by the driver, and they don’t make a distinction between a person traveling by car, public bus, bike, or any other transport over 10 miles per hour. This was the problem that Tibbitts and his team at the new company he founded, Katasi, set out to solve.
Their answer is Groove, a small device that plugs into a port located under the steering wheel (found in most cars made after 1996) and connects the car to the Internet. Once each driver of the vehicle is registered with Groove, within seconds of a drive starting, Groove figures out who the driver is and notifies the person’s phone carrier, allowing it to block distractions before they reach the phone. Once the car is turned off, Groove again notifies the carrier, and all blocked messages come rolling in, so nothing is missed.
In order for Groove to work seamlessly, it relies heavily on the partnership with mobile phone carriers. Katasi is working actively with two U.S. carriers to deploy Groove in 2015, but this, according to Tibbitts, is not enough. “Our goal is to have every carrier on board with Groove, providing the capability to limit distractions before they get to the phone when a subscriber is driving,” he said.
When Diane Misgen, the widow of Dave Sueper, learned what Tibbitts had developed in response to her husband’s death, she was both honored and hopeful that Groove will make a huge difference. Misgen told Couric, “It was so reassuring to me that this was going to save so many lives. And I think for my kids, it’s also heartwarming to know that someone else who had nothing to do with our family took on that challenge in honor of their dad.”