After a 16-year-decline in motor vehicle accidents and deaths per miles traveled, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, trends are beginning to reverse and skyrocket with no statistically discernible cause.
Legislators and safety advocates point to one culprit that often is not investigated — distracted driving.
A bill introduced this session by Senator Terrence Murphy, D-Jefferson Valley, and Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D- Brooklyn, would help shed more light on distracted driving accidents by allowing police to use “textalyzer” technology to determine whether a driver was distracted by his or her phone or other device at the time of an accident.
The bill, (S2306/A3959) known as “Evan’s Law,” would permit officers to conduct a field test of a driver’s phone following a motor vehicle accident. The bill is named after Evan Lieberman, a 19-year-old from Newcastle, New York, who died in a car accident caused by distracted driving in 2011.
Evan’s father, Ben Lieberman, has dedicated his life to distracted driving advocacy, as co-founder of Distracted Operators Risk Casualty (DORC) and the Alliance Combating Distracted Driving.
“We got that call that every parent dreads. ‘There’s been a car collision, and your son’s in the hospital,’” Lieberman said. “The driver told police that he fell asleep at the wheel. My gut was telling me, you don’t fall asleep on that crazy windy road at rush hour.”
Lieberman subpoenaed the driver’s phone records and found that they had been texting at the time of the crash.
“What I learned from this is that there is a completely dysfunctional system,” he said. “Most significantly, it’s because police never ask to see a driver’s mobile phone or the phone records… Police are actually instructed to avoid looking at the phones for privacy concerns.”
The field test will include the textalyzer, a program prototype currently being developed by Cellebrite, a mobile data company that can quickly produce a report on smartphone usage, without undermining privacy, the company says. The textalyzer, in 90 seconds, can show a law enforcement officer that the driver was using their phone, whether it be for responding to email, using snapchat, or placing a call.
In 2014, 254,829 vehicle crashes were reported in New York, of which only 64 were reported to involve texting. Without a witness or driver admission, distracted driving incidents are nearly impossible for law enforcement to detect.
According to Newcastle Town Supervisor Rob Greenstein, a crackdown on distracted driving has proved the severity of the problem.
“When we started the hands-off-the-phone-and-on-the-wheel initiative, I remember on the first day of targeted enforcement we issued 12 tickets. I remember saying, ‘Imagine if today we arrested 12 people for drunk driving.’ Nobody would want to leave their houses,” Greenstein said. “Well, since that day about two years ago we’ve issued about 1,700 tickets in Newcastle. Again, imagine if those were drunk driving tickets.”
Developers from Cellebrite demonstrated the textalyzer technology, which Lieberman and advocates hope will be used as “something that can be administered like a portable sobriety test.” The textalyzer can detect touching and swiping on a phone without accessing personal information, like messages or contact information. It can also differentiate between bluetooth voice activation calling versus normal phone calls.
Some civil liberties advocates and technology groups are against the legislation and voiced privacy concerns about the textalyzer.
“This bill gives police power to take and search people’s phones, which contain our most personal, private information,” said Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel for the NYCLU. “We don’t yet know if textalyzers can even detect distracted driving. But we are certain that enforcing this proposed law would violate people’s privacy and could potentially impute guilt for innocent activities.”
For advocates of Evan’s Law, the threat of distracted driving is too large to ignore. “Driving has become even more dangerous, and that’s why we need these tools, so that when an accident does occur, our law enforcement are able to effectively crack down on it,” said Senator Diane Savino, D- Staten Island. “We need to change the behavior of people so that they finally realize that this is more dangerous than drunk driving.”