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April 17, 2017   Inside UGA

Team of UGA students wins national policy competition for its TurnKey app

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A new app wants to reward teens for not using the phone while driving.

Created by students from UGA, the app recently took first place at the University of Pennsylvania's Fels National Invitational Public Policy Challenge in Philadelphia.

Consisting of Master of Public Administration students Laura Pontari and Sara Richey, public health doctoral candidate Hilary Carruthers and Master of Public Health student Oluwatobi "Tobi" Olagunju, the team received $10,000 to complete the development of TurnKey, a mobile app designed to dissuade high school students from texting and driving.

"The experience was incredible, demanding and completely worth it," said Olagunju. "We worked hard to identify a serious problem and worked harder to develop an acceptable solution."

The TurnKey app uses behavioral economics such as positive reinforcements to encourage students to drive safer. For each minute a student does not interact with the phone while ­driving, he or she receives points that eventually earns prizes. 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.

W. David Bradford, who holds the George D. Busbee Chair in Public Policy in UGA's School of Public and International Affairs, and Grace Bagwell Adams, an assistant professor of health policy and management in the UGA College of Public Health, were the 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."

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 10 percent."

Once the app is launched more widely, 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.