If you’re texting and driving, Sarah Morell might be recording you. She’s usually riding shotgun, as her husband drives, with her camera phone, ready to catch traffic safety violators on video. Her 6-year-old daughter’s in on the action too.
“Oh, Mommy look!” she’ll say from the backseat. “They’re texting and driving, that’s not good.”
Morell, who lives in Sacramento and spots most culprits on the freeways, will record the license plate and face of the distracted driver. Then she submits the footage through a new app called Text to Ticket. If you’re guilty, you could end up getting a citation in the mail.
“I hate when people text and drive,” Morell says. “The app sounded like an interesting idea and a good cause, so I downloaded it right away.”
Based in Sacramento, Text to Ticket launched in January with the goal to make the roads safer by urging people not to text and drive. Similar to mystery shoppers, the app turns users into citizen watchdogs who get paid to watch for and report violators. It was developed by a group of friends after a distracted driver almost hit them on their way to a San Francisco Giants game.
“We were going to a game, crossing the Embarcadero with a walk signal,” recalls co-founder and CEO Jesse Day, who has a public health background. “Then this driver, too busy looking at the phone, almost ran all of us over.”
No one was hurt. But not everyone is so lucky. In 2014, about 3,200 people were killed, and 431,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to Distraction.gov. These are drivers who text, check emails or social media accounts, paying attention to their phones and not the roads. More and more people using smartphones means these roads can potentially grow even more dangerous. Day and his friends decided to do something about that.
Most people, Day says, admit that texting and driving is dangerous, but still do it, thinking they won’t get caught. What are the chances that a police officer would happen to drive by and pull them over? That’s the mentality, says Steve Nguyen, a co-founder with a background a government technology. The team created Text to Ticket to deter people with the idea that they can get ticketed without getting pulled over.
“Somebody can report you,” Nguyen says. “Hopefully, that makes you think twice.”
Users must record the license plate and driver in a single video stream not breaking away from the vehicle. The app tracks the date, time, location and route traveled, then encrypts the data and sends it to secured servers, where they are automatically digitally signed. After reviewing the videos, agents forward them to local law enforcement for approval.
Right now, users can only record one violation per video. (A future release may allow multiple violators in one video.) For every submitted video that gets approved, the user receives $5. To this point, there have been 400 approved video submissions for a total payout of about $2,000. (Morell has made about $100 herself so far.)
Funding for this startup has come from family and friends. Also, the Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups accepted Text to Ticket into its accelerator program, investing $150,000 in exchange for 6 percent equity. In March, the startup made it to the final four of the Sacramento Kings Capitalize business competition. Text to Ticket has currently raised $450,000 of its $1.5 million goal.
To generate revenue, Text To Ticket adopted the same model often used by red-light cameras. They enter into partnerships with municipalities as a service provider. Municipalities pay the company a portion of each ticket amount or a flat monthly rate, Day says.
Overall, the startup wants to deter distracted drivers the same way the “Click It or Ticket” campaigns 20 years ago urged people to buckle up. But Text to Ticket does have its skeptics. Is this legal? Is this an invasion of privacy? Many users ask these questions.
Cyrus Zal, a solo practitioner in Folsom, has been an attorney since 1982. He has no direct involvement with the business of Text to Ticket, but the startup team occasionally consults him for legal advice. “In your own home, you expect to have privacy,” Zal says. “If you’re driving on public roads, you have no expectation of privacy.”
For this reason, Zal says, it is completely legal for users to videotape anybody they see driving and texting in a public setting on a public road. Free of those concerns, Nguyen hopes users see Text to Ticket as a tool that can save lives.
“For a lot of people, their initial feeling is, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this,’” Nguyen says. “But if you see somebody driving drunk, I would hope you would call the police. It’s our responsibility to protect ourselves and the people around us by letting them know this is not acceptable.”
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