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Safe driving? There's an app for that.

Marla Ghiringhelli has invented an app for smart phones to help prevent teens from texting and driving. Here, she jokes with her 15-year-old son Sean, who is about to get his driving permit.

John O'Hara/ For the Argus-Courier
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 12:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 4:27 p.m.

Stop teens from texting while driving? It's something many parents would like to do, and now there's an app for it — thanks to Marla Ghiringhelli, an eastside resident and mother of two teenage boys.

The self-described suburban, non-tech savvy mom says she was moved by a 2010 tragedy where a Petaluma High grad, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Dunaway, became distracted by texting and struck and killed a 2-year-old girl crossing the road with her mother in Rohnert Park. News of that incident weighed heavily on Ghiringhelli's mind at the same time that her two boys were beginning to drive.

Ghiringhelli is far from alone in her concerns, with reports on the dangers of texting and driving proliferating in the news.

United States Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called talking and texting on cell phones while driving “a national epidemic.”

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that a driver's chance of crashing increases 23 times when texting.

And while a new California law makes it legal for motorists to send a text message while driving as long as they are using voice-operated, hands-free technology, many studies have shown that hands-free conversations are equally as distracting to drivers as conversations on hand-held devices.

That's where Ghiringhelli's phone application, Safe Text Sender, comes in. To use it, drivers activate the program when they are preparing to drive somewhere. Then, the program “automatically responds to incoming texts and phone calls, eliminating distractions and temptations for the driver,” Ghiringhelli said. “The app quiets the phone while simultaneously responding with an auto reply: 'I am using Safe Text Sender. I am currently driving.'”

Missed calls and texts will be waiting for the driver when she reaches her destination. Ghiringhelli added that the reply can be customized for different situations, including going to the movies and working out.

The app, currently available only for Androids, was ready for sale in November 2012. It was featured on Jan. 20 in a Wall Street Journal blog highlighting “Phone Apps to Save Your Sanity, Life.”

But a year ago, Safe Text Sender was little more than an idea in the mind of a mom who had scarce experience using apps, let alone developing them.

“I was hearing more and more on the news about texting and driving,” Ghiringhelli said. At the same time, she had an 18-year-old son who drove and a 15-year-old getting ready to drive.

The idea for the phone application hatched out of her growing concern for her boys' safety.

“People feel that if they don't respond to (their ringing phone) in that instant, they're either going to miss out on something or their friends will think they're not available,” Ghiringhelli said, explaining that the app aims to eliminate the urge to respond to that ringing phone. When she ran the concept by friends, she got positive feedback.

But Ghiringhelli, who sells jewelry and promotional items from her home for a living, had no idea how to develop it. “So I went online and typed in 'app developers,'” she said. Finally, she found a firm based out of Salt Lake City that she felt she'd like to work with and commissioned them to carry out her idea.

The firm started developing the app in August and it was ready to be sold by November.

So far, about 150 apps have sold, Ghiringhelli said. She said she'd like to make her money back, as developing the program was an expensive endeavor. However, her main goal is to make the streets a little safer.

“People can choose mine or someone else's (app),” she said. “As long as they choose one and use it.”

Learn more about the app at http://www.safetextsender.com.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com.)

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