If you drink and drive and get into an accident, you’d probably take a breathalyzer test so police can measure your level of intoxication.
But if you were texting behind the wheel instead, how would an officer prove that you were breaking the law?
Some say phone records or a warrant to check the driver’s device would work, but Ben Lieberman, an activist against distracted driving, knows those methods aren’t enough.
That’s why he joined forces with Cellebrite, a cell phone analysis company, to create the “textalyzer.” The company revealed a prototype of the new technological concept to New York legislators in Albany last week. Like a breathalyzer that can prove someone was drinking, the textalyzer will evaluate the driver’s phone to see if they were using it in the moments before an accident.
Lieberman has been fighting against what he calls the “distracted driving epidemic” since 2011 when his 19-year-old son died after a car crash. His son was sitting in the backseat and wearing his seatbelt when an oncoming driver drifted across the lane, hitting his vehicle head on.
The driver told police they had fallen asleep. Half a year later, Lieberman got the truth: the driver had been texting.
“What we found out is that there is no police protocol when a crash happens [because of texting],” he said. “After a crash they say the cause is being investigated, but people don't realize that doesn't really include the phone.”
It took Lieberman six months to get that driver’s phone records. Those still paint a limited picture because they don’t show anything internet-related, like email, Facebook or Snapchat activity.
“It only gives you a small percent of what’s there. Not only [are phone records] difficult to get, but they are actually obsolete,” he said. “Others will say, ‘just get a warrant.’ It makes it sound like just filling out a form, but it entails getting a judge and district attorney involved. Imagine doing that every time a sobriety test was given.”
The textalyzer would fill these gaps, Lieberman said, because it connects to the driver’s phone at the scene of the crash to detect immediately if there was recent activity.
“It can’t [see] any conversations, pictures or contact information—just if they were using the device,” he said. “It will detect typing and swiping … and differentiate between legal bluetooth activity and illegal touching.”
Some have opposed the technology, citing privacy concerns, but Lieberman asserted that the phone would never leave the owner’s hand to be accessed by police and that the textalyzer “can’t get at any personal content.”
Legislation pending in New York State would allow police to use this technology at—and only at—crash scenes. Chicago lawmakers also just asked police there to use textalyzer technology. Once the product is on the market, Lieberman hopes it continues to spread across the country.
“What is right here in front of us is we have a law against texting and driving. We have that law,” he said. “The important thing we’re trying to do here is reinforce the law already in place.”