The Orange County Register - Tragedy is mother of this invention
03/04/2010 - By GREG HARDESTY
COTO DE CAZA Todd Follmer takes off in his Jeep.
"Please buckle your seat belt."
The words are coming from a device on the inside of his windshield.
He drives a bit, and then slams on the brakes.
"Aggressive driving," the computerized voice says.
Follmer whips his Jeep around a corner, tires squealing, and the voice repeats itself.
He then accelerates the car to a tiny bit faster than the 50 mph speed limit.
Follmer, 50, is driving erratically to show how a new device he developed, called tiwi, is every teen's worst nightmare.
In addition to sending verbal warnings to the driver, the device also can inform parents – in real time – of unsafe driving behavior via text, voice mail or e-mail. Later, parents and teens can go over the details together on a Web site.
Follmer, a father of three, believes the tiwi could play a key role in making teens safer drivers.
Before he launches into an explanation about how the device works, he wants to talk about the back story – the tragedy that, in part, sparked development of his product.
"It was the single most horrible thing to have happened to my family," Follmer says.
For another family, it was much worse.
Rianna Woolsey was a popular varsity songleader at Tesoro High School when, at around 6 p.m. on Dec. 7, 2005, she left her home in Coto de Caza to drive to a pep squad holiday get-together.
Woolsey, 16, was driving her Volkswagen Jetta down Coto de Caza Drive. She was following a pickup truck driven by her boyfriend, Austin Follmer, 18 – Todd Follmer's son.
The teens were driving too fast in the 50-mph zone.
Woolsey lost control of her car, jumped a curb and slammed into a tree.
She died, leaving behind her devastated parents and three siblings – and countless friends. Some 1,500 people packed Rianna's memorial service at Saddleback Church.
About a month later, his son still reeling from Woolsey's death, Todd Follmer – a business consultant and investor – got a call from a friend. He wanted Follmer to assess the investment prospects of a privately held Utah company, inthinc, a creator of crash-data recorders.
Inthinc was supplying the devices to NASCAR, and several industries, with the aim of having the data used to engineer safer cars and equipment. Follmer thought the company had potential.
But he had another idea too:
What about putting the data to use before a crash?
With Rianna's death still very much on his mind, Follmer got to work on analyzing how the technology could be applied to teenagers and safe driving.
He soon joined inthinc as its chief executive, and spearheaded the development of what eventually would become the tiwi. (The name means nothing, Follmer says – it was chosen because it's short and, he says, catchy.)
The first-generation tiwi came out in 2006. The devices were almost the size of a shoebox and cost $3,000. The latest version hit the market in October. It's a bit bigger than a toll road transponder and sells for $300, with a $30 monthly service charge.
So far, about 20,000 tiwis have been sold, mostly to operators of commercial vehicles.
But Follmer has a new market in mind. There are, he says, about 12 million teen drivers – and that's a lot of worried parents.
Tania Woolsey is Rianna's mother. More than four years after her daughter's death, she is finally able to talk about her girl without breaking down.
"You want to do everything in your power to protect your children," Woolsey said. "I, better than most people, know you can't always do that."
Driving through Coto de Caza, where he owns a home, Follmer can relate to the temptation of some drivers to zoom down winding portions of Coto de Caza Drive.
He knows his tiwi can't stop a teenager from driving recklessly, but he thinks it's a start.
The device plugs into a car's on-board diagnostic port, below the steering wheel. Since 1996, almost all cars have come with such a port.
Once installed, the device can tell if the driver is wearing a seat belt – and any sudden motion made by the car, such as a quick stop or sharp turn.
The tiwi also is loaded with data of all the posted speeds on U.S. streets. Users can decide whether to trigger a speeding warning at 1 mph over the limit, 5 mph, 10 mph – whatever.
After a driving session, an algorithm computes all the warnings the driver gets into a score that allows teens to be graded on how well they drove – giving parents another tool to assess their driving habits.
Equipped with a GPS, the device also can be programmed to alert parents when a car enters or leaves a specific zone, such as a school.
The tiwi also has a phone in it that can receive only incoming calls. The message "incoming call" flashes and the caller starts speaking; the driver doesn't have the option of not accepting the call.
Oh, and if the driver unplugs the tiwi? An alert will be sent that it's been disconnected.
Todd Follmer goes back to the day Rianna Woolsey died and recalls the fear and dread the tragedy instilled in him – particularly as a parent of teenage drivers.
He hopes lives can be saved with closer monitoring of driving habits.
The next-generation tiwi, he says, will be capable of detecting when a driver is text messaging or using a cell phone.
"This really isn't about Big Brother," he says. "It's about accident prevention, safety and awareness."
Tania Woolsey says she hadn't seen the tiwi, so she couldn't comment on the device.
She said her son, now 18, drives with a GPS tracking system that can follow his speed and location.
"It gives us some peace of mind," Woolsey said. "Anything that can help teens be more aware of how they drive is a wonderful thing."
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