Wayne Irving's daughter was 15 when she asked to get her driver's permit. "I was already frustrated at how addicted to texting my daughter was," says the San Clemente, Calif., father of four, who at the time had just learned a grim statistic: More than 7,000 Americans had died from texting and driving the previous year.
Instead of just signing the requisite slip of paper, Irving took a more proactive tack. He began work on a smartphone app to help solve the problem of texting behind the wheel.
That app has since grown into a nonprofit dedicated to combating a relentless scourge. Since 2009, when Irving was inspired to develop Text Kills (textkills.com), texting and driving has surpassed drinking and driving as the No. 1 killer of U.S. teens.
Now, Text Kills is on track to visit more than 30 high schools before the end of the year, hoping to affect the 25 percent of teens who admit to sending or receiving at least one text while driving. In the process, the organization plans to gather several thousand signatures from drivers who pledge to avoid texting while operating their vehicles for the next 12 months. NASCAR drivers Kyle Busch and Joey Logano and 100,000-plus others already have signed their names to the side of the yellow Text Kills bus that has been crisscrossing the U.S. since 2010.
"At the time, we were just a bunch of engineers and entrepreneurs living day to day," says Irving, who had been invited to Washington, D.C., to showcase the Text Kills app at a U.S. Department of Transportation event. Lacking the money to fly, Irving and his four co-developers at Monster Arts in San Clemente took turns driving Irving's RV, visiting college campuses along the way and proselytizing the ills of texting behind the wheel with a one-page fact sheet.
"We educated ourselves and hit the road," says Irving, whose first stop was the University of Denver in Colorado; 1,200 students showed up.
"Many of them had their own stories about texting and driving," says Irving, 42. "One freshman's parents bought her a brand-new Ford Mustang two weeks before college, and she totaled it a week later. Another gal told us her cousin died three weeks earlier when he was texting, ran off the road and hit a tree. We couldn't believe that folks were opening themselves up to us."
In the three years since, he says, "We've heard thousands of stories from kids and parents who have lost loved ones."
Twenty-one percent of drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 who are involved in fatal crashes were distracted by the use of cellphones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Eleven percent of all drivers under age 20 who are involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted (whether by texting, phone calls, radio or other sources) at the time of the crash — the largest percentage of any age group — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation site distraction.gov.
In August, Text Kills became even more serious about its mission. It filed papers to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit and began a crowd-sourced fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com to raise cash for a documentary it intends to make available to schools.
It's all part of the Text Kills plan to encourage more engagement with its message. The bus has already visited 3,000 schools, where students interacted with various distracted-driving simulators, one of which employs a 50-inch plasma TV mounted on the side of the Text Kills bus.
"We make them drive in a race-car situation around the track and pick up a card that looks like a phone and read it out loud. They read it, and their eyes aren't on the road. Everybody else is watching them veer off the track and hit a wall and their car is spinning around. It's a nice eye-opener," says Ryan Foland, executive producer of Text Kills.
Another simulator has drivers attempt to keep a remotely controlled car on a track while blindfolded for five seconds — about the same amount of time it typically takes to send a text. (At 55 mph, taking a driver's eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds is equivalent to driving the length of a football field, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.) Invariably, the car goes off the road and hits somebody's ankle, Foland says.
"If we could get people to crash because of distracted driving in a controlled environment, it would have the effect of, 'Oh, I won't do that again,' " he says.