By Justin Ellick
When it comes to driving, we can all agree that using your phone while behind the wheel is a no-go. Doing so clearly takes the driver’s attention and eyes away from the road. It’s something we know is unsafe, so why do most of us do it so regularly? The danger phone usage presents while driving is obvious enough to society that laws were put in place to prevent it, but those laws have quickly become outdated and most concerning is that those laws are near impossible to enforce.
With the way technology has progressed over the past five to ten years, phones are now so much more than just a way of communicating. Smartphones have taken over the world, and as a result have taken over people’s lives. Most of us can’t go a 15-minute car ride without checking our Instagram or taking a Snapchat. The fact that most people can acknowledge this problem and yet are still offenders, should be enough of a red flag to pursue additional legal action regarding the issue.
After a ten-year decline in auto collisions mainly due to a decrease in drunk driving and better built cars, road fatalities spiked up a staggering 8 percent in 2015. Driver distraction seems the most likely culprit but because police are limited in how they can investigate –the problem remains dramatically underreported and therefore, we remain far away from proper understanding and far away from a viable solution.
Legislators and public health experts are fighting to change a distinctly modern behavior. One man at the forefront of this fight is Ben Lieberman, a resident of Chappaqua, who knows all too well the problems and dangers phone use while driving presents. In June of 2011, Ben’s son Evan was asleep in the back of a car when the driver lost control. Evan, 19, ultimately passed away from the injuries he suffered in the crash. His father spent the next several months in a civil lawsuit trying to retrieve phone records, which eventually showed that the driver, who claimed he had fallen asleep, was texting throughout the drive and moments before the crash. The collision happened in a dead cell area so the exact moment remains controversial.
This is where Ben learned there is very little police protocol in place to examine phones or phone records after a crash. He has been an advocate for driving safety ever since, and has been working tirelessly to get peoples’ hands off the phone and back on the wheel. As a result of this effort, Ben, his wife Debbie, and Deborah Becker (whose son was also a surviving passenger in the crash) have introduced legislation that would essentially start to treat distracted driving like drunken driving in New York State.
The bill, dubbed Evan’s Law in honor of Lieberman’s son, would give police officers at the scene of a crash roadside technology similar to that of the Breathalyzer, allowing them to tap into any operating system in order to check for recent illegal activity on the device (as opposed to legal Bluetooth use) all while avoiding any content. Also, if a passenger were using the driver’s phone, neither person would be penalized.
However, the legislation has raised concerns by privacy organizations. They suggest that phone records can be subpoenaed or a warrant can be obtained to examine the phone. Lieberman understands the concerns but notes that, “Phone records only reveal texting and phone calls which would exclude so many popular activities like social media, selfies and even a common email. Also, a warrant to examine the phone is far more difficult and time consuming to obtain than people could ever imagine. It’s also important to note that a phone can be wiped to original ‘store settings’ long before a warrant arrives.”
“The legislation’s intent is to meticulously respect privacy by emphasizing usage over content,” Lieberman continued, “There’s obviously going to be a kneejerk reaction from people that their phone is being looked at. We want to make sure people understand that such a device would only report how much you’re touching your cellphone, not what your touching it for.”
The technology behind the legislation has been nicknamed The Textalyzer. As for the company that would create such a device, Mr. Lieberman has teamed up with Cellebrite U.S.A., the mobile forensics company that has been reported to have cracked the San Bernardino terrorist’s IPhone when Apple was deadlocked with the FBI. Cellebrite has gone on record that they are confident they can develop the technology. The fact that a highly regarded tech company like Cellebrite vouched for the Textalyzer was huge for the Liebermans when it came to getting politicians behind the bill.
Democratic assemblyman Félix Ortiz, who is a strong supporter and sponsor of Evan’s Law, said that the Textalyzer would not give officers access to the contents of any emails or texts. It would simply give them a way to catch distracted drivers. If a bill like Evan’s law becomes reality, people are going to be more afraid to put their hands on the cellphone,” concluded Ortiz.
In six short months, Ben and his wife Debbie have made tremendous strides in changing the perspective people have on texting and driving. By bringing Evan’s Law and the Textalyzer technology to the forefront, they’re forcing a conversation hoping that people will realize that not only is distracted driving a destructive behavior but also, that there is very little in place to deter this.
Distracted driving should be taken just as seriously as drunk driving. They are both dangerous, crippling, and without a doubt a killer. But for some strange reason–phone usage is still socially acceptable. If we truly understood the scope of the damage, people would have more urgency. It’s time that distracting drivers are viewed with the same stigma as drunk drivers. Passing of Evan’s Law and the development of the Textalyzer are essential to that process.
Greeley grad Justin Ellick, a sophomore Media and Communications Major at Ursinus College in Philadelphia, is an intern for Inside Chappaqua and Inside Armonk Magazines this summer.