Aldermen eye ‘textalyzer’ to send message to distracted drivers

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A driver using a cellular phone while behind the wheel. Two Chicago aldermen want to crack down on this practice. | Associated Press file photo

Noting that one of every four traffic accidents across the nation is caused by texting while driving, a pair of powerful aldermen say it’s time for Chicago Police officers to use new technology to stop it.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) introduced a resolution at Wednesday’s City Council meeting for the police department to look into using a so-called “textalyzer” to detect whether motorists involved in injury-related accidents had been distracted by their cellphones before the crash occurred.

It’s the brainchild of a New York father who turned his grief to action, leading to a push to fight distracted driving with tools similar to those used to combat drunken driving. But already the embryonic technology is raising red flags with some civil libertarians.

Nearly 3,500 people were killed and 391,000 injured in crashes involving distracted drivers across the United States in 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s the leading cause of traffic deaths for teenagers, and people between 16 and 24 have been found to use their phones while driving, more often than they drink and drive.

“Our nation is in the grips of a texting epidemic. Drivers text with impunity because they think there is little chance of ever getting caught,” Burke was quoted as saying in a press release.

“When a motorist is pulled over for suspicion of drinking and driving, police routinely use a Breathalzyer during traffic stops. Why not also be able to use a Textalyzer or a similar device to determine if a driver was engaging in distracted driving?”

The “textalyzer” being developed by the Israeli mobile forensics company Cellebrite is still in the prototype stage and has yet to be implemented anywhere, but legislators are mulling the idea in several states.

A bill under consideration in New York would let officers use the company’s tablet, which connects to a driver’s phone to determine if the person had been typing or swiping on their phone within minutes of a crash — without giving police access to the contents of the phone.

Ben Lieberman, co-founder of Distracted Operators Risk Casualties, lost his 19-year-old son to a crash involving a distracted driver in 2011 in Orange County, New York. Lieberman suspected there was more to the story than the driver’s claim that he simply fell asleep, and Lieberman had to go through an “agonizing” process of subpoenaing phone records to prove the driver had been texting throughout the trip, he said.

Lieberman went to Cellebrite and asked them to find a solution, and with them he has championed the New York bill. It would suspend the licenses of drivers who don’t hand over their phones for analysis after a crash. Like a Breathalyzer, drivers could refuse to have their phones tested and face punishment, Lieberman said.

“When a drunk driver causes a crash, we have a process in place,” he said. “There’s no efficient mechanism for police to know if a driver was distracted.”

The device designed by Cellebrite is the size of an iPad, and the driver would be able to hold onto the phone while it’s connected and scanned.

“We don’t care what you were doing on your phone, just whether you were on it,” Lieberman said.

Ed Yohnka, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said he is “leery” of the technology.

“We don’t know enough about it,” Yohnka said. “With these kinds of tools, what other information ends up getting captured? What the technology is designed to do today is not fully explanatory of what it could be used for in a year.”

Yohnka said that if there’s no emergency, police should get a warrant to search phones. Lieberman said that process is costly, lengthy and unrealistic for police dealing with thousands of crashes a year.

Burke and Beale did not say what kind of penalty they would favor or address privacy concerns, but said something more needs to be done.

“Everywhere you look on Chicago streets and on expressways, drivers are texting,” Beale said. “Such illegal activity not only poses a serious threat to other motorists, but also to the many cyclists who regularly use our network of bike lanes and to pedestrians at crosswalks.”

Since 2008, Chicago has banned both texting while driving and talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device. Nevertheless, traffic accidents are on the rise; Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld has called it a “public health crisis.”

Scheinfeld is poised to unveil a so-called “Vision Zero” campaign that’s expected to use video surveillance and targeted enforcement crackdowns to reduce the number of accidents on Chicago streets.

After introducing their resolution at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Burke and Beale cited statistics that show texting while driving as the leading cause of traffic fatalities among teenagers across the nation.

Those statistics show that an average of 11 teenagers die every day in crashes that involved texting. And high school drivers 16 and older text or email and drive, more than they drink and drive.

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