texting while drivingNew York State is considering a first-of-its kind bill that would require drivers to hand their phones over after a crash so authorities can determine if the driver was texting or calling at the time of the accident. Police would uncover the evidence via an electronic device called the Textalyzer that is being developed.

As Joel Rose reports for NPR’s All Tech Considered, the bill was proposed by New York resident Ben Lieberman. Lieberman’s son, Evan, 19, died after suffering massive internal injuries from a car accident in 2011. Evan was riding in the back seat, and was wearing a seat belt.

Lieberman assumed police would examine the driver’s cell phone, but they did not. The driver, Michael A. Fiddle, told police he fell asleep at the wheel. Lieberman accessed the cellphone records six months later (by filing a civil lawsuit), and saw that Fiddle had been texting during the entire drive, and close to the time of the accident.

Texting While Driving ‘Underreported’

Enforcement personnel have the option of subpoenaing phone records or asking a judge for a warrant to search the phone, and on occasion that is done. But not always, because of the time and money involved, especially in cases that are hard to prove.

Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, said:

Oftentimes, drivers aren’t willing to admit that they were texting on their cellphone or they were distracted by some other source. It’s just underreported.

Dingus said he thinks the percentage of crashes involving distracted driving is much higher than the 20% shown by police accident reports. When they put cameras in cars, Virginia Tech researchers found that almost 70% of crashes are due to distracted driving.

‘Textalyzer’ Under Development

Lieberman is working with a company to create the Textalyzer, a device similar to a Breathalyzer, but for text messages and other electronic distractions. The Textalyzer would plug into a cell phone and give police info on whether it was being used when a crash occurred.

The bill, S6325A, is called Evan’s Law, Jose Pagliery wrote for CNN Money. It was introduced into the New York State Assembly by Assembly Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz (D-Kings), and into the New York State Senate by Terrance Murphy (R-Westchester), according to Distracted Operators Risk Casualties, an awareness organization co-founded by Lieberman. Last month, the New York Senate’s Transportation Committee approved the bill, 16-to-2. Under the provisions of Evan’s Law, a driver would lose his or her driver’s license if he or she refused to hand over the phone.

Privacy Concerns

The Electronic Privacy Information Center’s President Marc Rotenberg has said the bill is “excessive, unnecessary, and invasive.” But, Lieberman emphasized the device would not delve into a phone’s personal communications or invade privacy. “I don’t think that you have to surrender all your privacy rights to get this right,” Lieberman said.

Among the many comments to the NPR article, Charlotte A. Cavatica, who supports use of a Textalyzer, writes:

[…] Surely if the drivers were suspected of having fired a gun the police would be within their rights to see if it had been fired, so why can’t they check for texts? Texting while driving has made that instrument just as lethal as a firearm […]

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