New Device Could Dissuade Texting and Driving
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
It is not uncommon for drivers to text while driving. In fact, many of us are probably guilty of this dangerous behavior. Now, in several states and cities across the US, police may be given permission to use what is known as the “textalyzer,” a device roughly based on the Breathalyzer that tell whether you’ve been texting illegally behind the wheel. Legislators in New York have taken a vested interest in the matter partially due to stories like that of Ben Lieberman whose 19-year old son died in a text-related car accident in the Hudson Valley in 2011. For people like Lieberman, the textalyzer offers an alternative to more difficult methods. As Lieberman put it, “Phone records — as I found out the hard way — they're tough to get [and] it's an agonizing process."
A Single Tragic Event
Lieberman’s son, Evan, was in the backseat of his friend’s car when the vehicle swerved into oncoming traffic resulting in a head-on collision. Evan suffered major internal injuries and died months later, even though he had his seat belt on. It took Lieberman months to figure out that his son’s friend was texting while driving. He was eventually able to obtain phone records in order to prove that texting was behind his son’s death.
A Tragic State of Affairs
This is but one story among thousands. In 2015, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 35,092 people died in the US as a result of car crashes, marking a 7.2 percent increase in deaths since 2014, the largest single-year jump since 1966. This is the first time traffic crash fatalities have increased since 2005. But the exact cause of this jump is a matter of dispute because the data just isn’t precise with regard to causation.
However, in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Mark Rosekind, administrator of the NHTSA, had this to say in response to a question regarding the relationship between distracted driving and traffic crash fatalities: “we know distraction is very significant. The more and more technology that we get offers tremendous value to potentially help save these lives. But there’s also the potential to bring more things into the car that could distract us, as well.”
Conversely, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Virginia-based nonprofit association, claims that the increase in car accident-related fatalities probably has more to do with lower unemployment than with texting. The logic here is that if people are out of work then they’re probably not driving as much.
Still, Jessica Cicchino, vice president for research at the insurance institute, acknowledges that texting is a serious distraction and is very dangerous. She said, “It’s definitely a thing that people are doing. We know that people are doing it.” The problem is there isn’t enough data to show its significance.
A Cautionary Tale
Beyond the data problem, there is always the tragic tale of a man who lost his son. Evan was home after his freshman year at the University of Connecticut and then he died without warning. That alone is enough to caution drivers against the dangerous behavior of texting while driving. Hopefully, statisticians can eventually find ways to sharpen the data. Until then, it’s probably best to put the phone in the glove compartment.