Before he could even put a key in the ignition, T.J. Evarts was already obsessed with texting and driving. Not, like, doing it, but preventing it.
"It kind of started when my friends were learning to drive and I was seeing some of that behavior from new, inexperienced drivers and I thought, 'there must be a solution out there,'" Evarts, 20, told MTV News. But, to his surprise, there wasn't. So, at 14, he set out on a journey that has taken him everywhere from the White House to "Shark Tank" and, this week, at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where he's manning the booth for his anti-texting and driving gadget: SMARTWheel.
The steering wheel cover tracks whether a driver has both hands on the wheel at all times and warns you with a buzzing sound and flashing lights if you try to one- or no-hand it. Put both paws back on and light goes back to green and the buzzing stops. And, if you're one of those sneaky types who think you can beat it by keeping both hands on the wheel realclosetogether while typing and driving? Nope.
"Five-hundred thousand people are injured every year by distracted driving and all I found were recording devices or ones that tell you how fast you were going when you hit that tree," said Evarts. "I set out to alert drivers to a dangerous situation before it happens." Evarts started working on SMARTWheel 6 years ago with his two sisters, but it didn't become an all-consuming business until he was 16, when an invitation came to appear on "Shark Tank."
"My sisters and I were competing in science competitions and at some point an executive producer on 'Shark Tank' called and that was the moment when I changed my mind set and realized it was a great tool for saving lives and making some money," he said of his 2013 spot on the inventor incubator series.
Assuming your folks aren't already tracking your every movement, SMARTWheel also gathers data that can be sent to an app that tells mom and pop what kind of driver you are and alerts them if you try to remove it from the steering wheel. Evarts said the proprietary technology works by looking for three different scenarios: both hands off the wheel, adjacent hands (which is a common texting and driving position) and one hand off the wheel for an extended period (more than 4 seconds). If any of those happen, the incident is recorded for review on the app that comes free with the purchase of the $199 device.
Users can track their safe driving progress on the app and, if they stay focused, can also hook into a reward system that offers incentives like free MP3s and gas cards. Evarts' goal is to have the product available for purchase on his site in the next few months.
The Londonderry, New Hampshire, native said he's been accepted to every college he applied to, but is deferring for now with his parent's blessing to pursue his dreams.
"I figured SMARTWheel is here for a reason so I need to go for it," said Evarts, who has been competitively skiing since he was 6 years-old and was named to Segway inventor Dean Kamen's "Dean's List" in 2012 for his LEGO robotics engineering prowess. "It's definitely a trade-off, but all my friends want to work for me now and this will save lives, so there's no better opportunity in life to explore it."
And he's not done yet. Evarts said he's got a ton of other ideas, some of which he's already working on.