A top mayoral aide on Thursday embraced an aldermanic plan to use technology to crack down on a deadly epidemic: texting while driving.
Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said texting while driving is “one of the most common distracted driving issues” and one of the “top five causes of traffic crashes,” killing hundreds of people a year and seriously injuring thousands.
“I was pleased to see the support from aldermen . . . to bring these issues to light and continue to find ways to address a growing concern,” she said.
DISTRACTED DRIVERS: Aldermen eye use of ‘textalyzer’
Scheinfeld said the device known as a “textalyzer” is “something the Police Department needs to weigh in on. That would be part of their enforcement practices as proposed. But certainly any additional tools we can have to curb this problem would be welcome.”
The resolution championed by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) asks the Chicago Police Department to explore the possibility of using a “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.
“We need to do something. . . . So many teens are in accidents, being killed. The numbers are up drastically because this texting thing is out of control,” Beale said Thursday.
“We tried working with T-Mobile, ATT, Verizon. There is technology out there that can shut down a phone if you’re going a certain speed. We’ve asked them to roll that out to help save lives,” he said. “But there’s a resistance to do that. Hopefully, this will get their attention to do something.”
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 considering 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.
For Scheinfeld, the proposal is particularly well-timed. She has called the traffic crashes that seriously injure five people in Chicago every day, and kill someone every three days, a “persistent plague” that has created a “true public health crisis.”
She’s about to unveil a “Vision Zero” campaign that’s expected to use video surveillance and targeted enforcement crackdowns to reduce the number of accidents on Chicago streets.
“We should not, as a society, accept that traffic crashes are an inevitable part of life in the big city or anywhere across the country,” she said Thursday.
“We should continue to be generating ideas to be eliminating this scourge through — not only technology, but through our built environment, through our community organizations, through our public awareness and through enforcement. [Vision Zero is] gonna be a combination of all of those things.”
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reported Thursday that the Chicago Police Department issued only 168 citations for the improper use of mobile devices last year, down from 45,672 in 2014.
Scheinfeld said she has no idea why so few tickets have been issued at a time when distracted driving — and distracted walking, for that matter — are on the rise.
Nor would she speculate on whether it has anything to do with the fact the police officers have their hands full fighting crime and may not have time to write traffic tickets.
“I can’t speak for the police. Every day, they are out there enforcing the laws and the traffic laws are part of that. We are pleased that the Police Department is one of our main partners in the Vision Zero effort that we are launching to continue to keep the focus on traffic-safety issues and reduce traffic crashes affecting all Chicagoans,” she said.
But Scheinfeld added, “Any kind of distraction while a user is moving through the right of way — whether they are walking, biking or driving — can lead to very dangerous consequences, and we all have to do our part to stay alert and follow the rules of the road.”
An average of 11 teenagers die every day in crashes that involved texting. High school drivers 16 and older text or email and drive, more than they drink and drive.
“It’s certainly a generational thing where you have more younger people embracing mobile technology. But everybody is tied to their devices. It’s a risk to anybody,” she said.
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. But the anguished father had to go through an “agonizing” process of subpoenaing phone records to prove the driver had been texting throughout the trip.
After the ordeal, Lieberman went to Cellebrite and asked them to find a solution.
The company’s device is the size of an iPad, and the driver would be able to hold onto the phone while it’s connected and scanned.
The ACLU is “leery” of the technology because of privacy concerns.
“With these kinds of tools, what other information ends up getting captured?” ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said.
Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout