Driving safely requires that both hands remain firmly on the steering wheel, but some people find the temptation to use their smartphone at the wheel all too enticing, often resulting in road accidents. To combat this, a group of students has come up with SMARTwheel: an aftermarket steering wheel cover that detects when drivers are engaging in unsafe activities like texting while driving, and provides sonic and visual alerts to refocus their attention.

Deriving the first part of its name from the acronym "Safe Motorist Alert for Reducing Texting, Tweeting, Typing, Touchscreens, Takeout and Touch-up," SMARTwheel was designed by students aged between 12 and 18 from Londonderry, New Hampshire. The team is collectively known as “The Inventioneers,” and has been working together since 2004. SMARTwheel is the third invention produced by the group thus far.

Like the Tiwi, SMARTwheel is primarily focused toward teenage and inexperienced drivers. The device fits onto a standard steering wheel and sounds an alert while simultaneously flashing red lights if a driver is deemed to be holding the steering wheel in an unsafe manner – hopefully refocusing their attention as a result. A digital log of when the incident occurs is then produced, and can be later accessed by parents, employers, or law enforcement.

Gizmag caught up with a few members of the Inventioneers team, and had a chat about the design of the SMARTwheel and future plans for the product. The team explained that the device makes use of embedded sensors to determine when drivers have removed one or both hands from the wheel for too long, or if the person is texting while driving.

At present, the digital log is accessed via wired connection to a computer, though plans are in the works to offer a version which sends out the data in real time – perhaps with a Bluetooth tether to a smartphone.

Other plans for SMARTwheel include an accessory which fits onto a stick shift, and the team is also looking to expand the technology into the areas of mass-transit and commercial driving. The Inventioneers members further expressed a desire to work with insurance companies, who could offset the cost of a professional installation of the SMARTwheel (though DIY installation is also possible).

The Inventioneers recently received an audience with President Obama, who declared his admiration for the project, and the team is currently planning to manufacture the SMARTwheel, with a proposed eventual retail price of US$200.

While a release date is still unconfirmed at this early stage, a late 2013 schedule is hopeful.

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