New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Traffic Safety Committee is holding public listening sessions to gather input about potential use of the so-called Textalyzer. This technology can detect whether a driver used a cell phone moments before a crash. Backers say it could be a vital tool for law enforcement, but civil liberties advocates have concerns.
The governor’s Traffic Safety Committee held a listening session in Westchester County in September and has two more scheduled for other parts of the state. In July, Cuomo directed the committee and its member agencies to study the technology and any issues associated with its implementation and use. Westchester County resident Ben Lieberman lost his 19-year-old son to a fatal car crash in 2011 and says he found out the driver of the car in which his son was riding had been texting while driving.
“A Breathalyzer did not cure drunk driving,” says Lieberman. “Drunk driving’s still a problem but, implementing Breathalyzer did things like give us a way to understand the problem, give us a way to put proper deterrents and, more important than anything else, to create a social stigma about this behavior and right now that’s missing, it’s missing from distracted driving.”
Lieberman, of Chappaqua, is co-founder of DORCs, or Distracted Operators Risk Casualties, and is a leading advocate for a Textalyzer and curtailing distracted driving. He says phone records only provide a sliver of information after a crash.
“A simple email wouldn’t show up on a phone record, yet alone Facebook or taking selfies or playing Pokémon GO Candy Crush or any of the other… and browsing the web any of the other distractions that are out there won’t show up on a phone record,” Lieberman says. “Plus, it’s brutally hard to get a hold of them anyway.”
Maureen Vogel is spokeswoman for the National Safety Council.
“The National Safety Council really believes that technology got us into the distracted driving mess, and technology has a promise to get us out of it,” Vogel says.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has concerns about privacy. In an emailed statement, NYCLU Capital Region Chapter Director Melanie Trimble says, “We are interested to learn what the committee finds, but it won’t change the fact that police should get a warrant before they get access to our phones. After all, a cell phone is your private life in your pocket.” Lieberman says that privacy argument is misinformed.
“ As a matter of fact, the Textalyzer gives you less information than a phone record because a phone record will give you a phone number and, most likely, even a contact. This won’t even give you that. This gives you typing and swiping and leaves all personal content out,” says Lieberman. “So this is by no means law enforcement saying, license, registration, let me rummage through your phone. It’s quite the opposite. It’s jumping through hoops to respect privacy.”
To her knowledge, Vogel says, no state currently uses textalyzer technology, but cities such as Chicago have been looking into it. Vogel says her Council believes distracted driving incidents are highly underreported and law enforcement faces a barrier when it comes to uncovering the truth about possible instances of distracted driving.
“The most recent data that we have from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is from 2015,” says Vogel. “In 2015, 10 percent of all fatal crashes involved distraction.”
She says numbers for 2016 have not been finalized. Vogel points out “distracted” is a broad term that can encompass texting, eating, reaching into the back seat for something, and more. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s Traffic Safety Committee says that, according to the University at Albany’s Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, from 2011-2015, 678 people were killed and more than 169,000 people were injured in distracted driving crashes in New York.
During that same time period, 1.2 million tickets were issued for cell phone violations. In 2015 alone, more than 217,000 tickets were issued for cell phone violations, and 39 percent of those were for texting while driving.
Westchester Republican State Senator Terrence Murphy introduced legislation earlier this year that would set rules for Textalyzer use. It is called Evan’s law, named for Lieberman’s son. Again, Vogel.
“We really need to get to the point as a society where we decide that enough is enough, and we want to disconnect, and we want to take back our drive, and just drive, not be connected, not update social media, not be talking to people while we’re behind the wheel.” Vogel says.
The two remaining public listening sessions are October 25 in Bethpage, Long Island, and November 9 at the University of Rochester.