ALBANY, New York—Ben Lieberman just wanted to find out what may have caused the head-on collision that killed his 19-year-old son, Evan, on a highway north of New York City.
It took a lawsuit and six months in court to get the cell phone records showing the driver of the car his son was in had been texting behind the wheel.
Lieberman doesn’t believe getting that information should be so hard.
He’s channeling his grief over the 2011 accident into a proposal that would allow police at accident scenes in New York to immediately examine drivers’ cell phones with a device to determine if they’d been tapping, swiping or clicking. It’s been called a Breathalyzer for texting.
“You think people are already looking at phones and it just doesn’t happen,” said Lieberman, who is partnering with the Israel-based tech company Cellebrite to develop the plug-in device that’s been nicknamed the “textalyzer.”
The idea already faces obstacles from constitutional and privacy advocates who are quick to note that police need the owner’s consent and a warrant to get cell phone records.
They’re also concerned such technology would be used to access all of the personal information people may have on their cell phones.
“Every fender bender would become a pretense for gobbling up people’s private cell phone information and we know that cell phones typically contain our entire lives,” said New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman, who has no relation to Ben Lieberman.
At least 46 states have laws barring texting while driving and 14 ban all hand-held devices, but some safety advocates say more needs to be done to enforce the laws.
Deborah Hersman, the CEO of the National Safety Council and a supporter of the “textalyzer” legislation, noted that in 2016, 40,000 people died on the road, a 14-percent jump from 2014 and the biggest two-year jump in 50 years.
Cellebrite said its technology, which was about nine months away from being finished, sidestepped privacy concerns because it was designed to determine only usage, not access data.
Company officials said the device would only be able to tell if someone physically clicked or swiped the phone during the time of the accident.
After Ben Lieberman obtained the cell phone records, the driver of the car carrying Evan had his license revoked for a year. He was never charged with a crime.
He said he hoped the textalyzer would serve as a deterrent and a way for law enforcement to begin tracking the scope of the problem. —AP
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