When Ben Lieberman's 19-year-old son died in a head-on collision in New York, he sued to get phone records showing the driver of the car his son was in had been texting. Lieberman is channeling his grief into a proposal that would allow New York police at accident scenes to examine drivers' cellphones to see if they'd been tapping, swiping, or clicking. The device has been called a Breathalyzer for texting, reports the AP. "You think people are already looking at phones and it just doesn't happen," said Lieberman, who is partnering with tech company Cellebrite to develop the plug-in device nicknamed the "textalyzer." Privacy advocates are quick to note that police need the owner's consent and a warrant to get cellphone records. "Every fender bender would become a pretense for gobbling up people's private cellphone information, and we know that cellphones typically contain our entire lives," says a New York Civil Liberties Union rep.
At least 46 states have laws barring texting while driving and 14 ban all hand-held devices, but safety advocates say those laws need enforcement. The National Safety Council CEO supports the legislation, noting that 40,000 people died on the road in 2016, a 14% jump from 2014 and the biggest two-year jump in 50 years. "There can't be a more compelling reason than life or death for saying why we should have access to this information," she says. Cellebrite said its tech, which is about nine months away, sidesteps privacy concerns because it's designed only to determine usage at the time of the acident, not access data; investigators could use that to determine if they should get a warrant. Similar legislation is being considered in Tennessee, New Jersey, and Chicago. "The last thing I want to do is be responsible for legislation that is going to infringe on someone's privacy," says Lieberman, "but I also don't want to bury another child." (Read more texting while driving stories.)