SPIA Students Win National Policy Competition with Life Saving App

Athens, GA –  Challenged by the public health threat of distracted driving among teens, students from the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and the College of Public Health designed an app that will potentially save lives. This innovative policy tool took first place at the University of Pennsylvania’s National Invitational Public Policy Challenge held March 24-26 in Philadelphia.

The team—consisting of Master of Public Administration students Laura Pontar and Sara Richey, Doctor of Public Health student Hilary Carruthers, and Master of Public Health student Oluwatobi “Tobi” Olagunju — received $10,000 to complete the development of TurnKey, a mobile app designed to dissuade high school students from texting and driving. W. David Bradford, George D. Busbee Chair in Public Policy in SPIA, and Grace Bagwell Adams, assistant professor of health policy and management in the College of Public Health, were the UGA team’s faculty sponsors.

“The Fels Policy Challenge is transformative for students–they have the opportunity to build something innovative that has potential for real, sustainable change in their communities,” said Bagwell Adams. “It is inspiring to watch these ideas come to fruition.”

The TurnKey app uses behavioral economics such as positive reinforcements to encourage students to engage in safer driving techniques. For each minute a student does not interact with their phone while driving, they earn points that eventually earn them prizes. Basic participation – opening the app and beginning to drive without any phone interaction—earns students points they can trade in for various coupon offers. Higher performing students will have their names entered into a drawing each semester for the chance to win a larger grand prize. In addition, students who team up to participate in the app’s group competitions can claim awards that include bonus points or a group pizza party.

“TurnKey has implications for public safety and public health,” said Bagwell Adams. “The application of behavioral science and technology to alter individual behavior in this context could save lives in Athens and other communities.”

In collaboration with an app developer and the Athens-Clarke County School District, the TurnKey team will launch the pilot phase of the app at one Athens-area high school in fall 2017 and eventually span out to others.

“Our plan is to get TurnKey in the hands of all 3,200 high school students in Athens within three years,” said Bradford. “Even if the TurnKey program doesn’t prevent any fatal accidents, we conservatively expect it to reduce the rate of accidents in Clarke County by ten percent.”

The team believes this will result in 500 fewer accidents per year, with an average savings of $6,000 per accident. These savings would benefit the youth and their families, the broader community of drivers and pedestrians, and ultimately serve to bring down costs, including those for auto insurance, in the area.

“We strongly believe that UGA can lead the nation in addressing teen texting while driving by developing TurnKey in collaboration with the Athens-Clarke County school system,” said Bradford.

The TurnKey team brings home UGA’s second national win at the National Invitational Policy Challenge.  Hosted by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government, the by-invitation-only policy competition challenges student teams to develop a comprehensive policy proposal and civic campaign plan addressing an issue specific to their university’s local community. UGA was among four schools named as semi-finalists, including the Georgetown University, University of Texas at Austin and University of Pennsylvania.

“I am very thankful for the opportunity to represent the University of Georgia at the Fels National Policy Challenge,” said Tobi Olagunju, an MPH student in the College of Public Health. “The experience was incredible, a learning curve, demanding, and completely worth it. We worked hard to identify a serious problem and worked harder to develop acceptable solution. We forged the necessary partnerships, garnered important support from the community, did our research, and generated excitement about our innovation. We hope that we begin to see a reduction in distracted driving as we roll out TurnKey, and ultimately less accidents, injuries, and fatalities. We want to normalize non-cellphone use behind the wheel.”