After a car crash, police almost never investigate whether the drivers were on their cell phones—despite the fact that texting or talking on a phone may be responsible for as much as 37% of accidents.
A new bill in New York State would change that, giving police a "textalyzer" that would show if someone had been illegally using a phone while driving, without revealing any other data.
"No conversations, no phone numbers, no contacts, no pictures—just the usage," says Ben Lieberman, who helped push for the bill in memory of his son Evan, who was killed in 2011 by a driver who had been texting.
"The driver said he fell asleep at the wheel, and it was a crazy road, during rush hour," Lieberman says. "A lot of the story didn't make sense to me." At the time, however, he didn't focus on the reason for the accident; he and his wife were focused on trying to save their 19-year-old son, who spent 31 days in a trauma unit before he died.
They also assumed the police would look into the driver's phone usage, but that never happened. Police don't look at phones because they'd need a warrant to avoid violating Fourth Amendment privacy protections.
But the new law, if it's passed, would call for the state to develop technology that could answer the critical question of how someone might have been using their phone without showing police anything else, so it could be used as routinely as a breathalyzer.
A "mobile device forensics" company called Cellebrite would develop the technology, which Lieberman says will be able to distinguish whether someone was using the phone in a legal way, like through voice commands.
If a passenger uses the driver's phone, they can testify as a witness that the phone was used legally. "It's not a situation where we're looking to ambush people," Lieberman says. But it is a way for others potentially what he went through—a civil lawsuit, a subpoena, and six months of waiting—to try to find out what really happened in his son's accident.
He's hoping that New York, which was also the first state to make it illegal to use a mobile phone while driving, will be an example for the rest of the company. "What we're trying to do is be a model, so that others can look at this and say this is a good idea, and a good way to do it, and hopefully get adapted on a national level," he says.