Tech Talk: Can Technology Catch Distracted Drivers?

A parent who lost his son in a 2011 crash in a car driven by a distracted driver has worked with Cellebrite, a mobile forensics company, to design and build a way of determining if a phone is being used at the time of an incident. By way of background to the product, which is being dubbed the "Textalyzer," currently there is limited legislation to catch distracted drivers who have caused a crash. Current legislation relies on humans to admit that the driver was using his or her cell phone at the time of any incident and should the facts be in doubt, investigators can request access to phone and billing records, a process that can take many weeks. Even when a phone record is acquired, it may not show device activity at the time of an incident. It can show the call and text logs, and some companies are able to provide details as to what sort of Internet activity was taking place, but with many applications and services performing background Internet use this is circumstantial and does not necessarily prove the driver was doing something with a smartphone.

Cellebrite's Textalyzer is a software package designed to connect to a smartphone and determine if the keyboard (including a touchscreen keyboard) was being used at the time of an incident. Cellebrite have designed this technology to be easy, simple to use and to maintain user privacy: the software attempts to identify if the device was being used without identifying what it was being used for. To do this, the Cellebrite software connects to a cell 'phone and studies the system logs to understand what the device was doing at the exact time. The device has already been built and legislation is currently being considered to give police officers the authority to the new software. If approved, this same software may quickly and easily be drafted for use elsewhere in the United States and ultimately the world.

The reason for revised laws is because currently there is a different mechanism in place should the police suspect a driver was distracted compared with if he or she has been drinking. For a suspected drunk driver, the suspect is asked to submit to a Breathalyzer or blood alcohol test and there are consequences if he or she does not agree to this: the driver could lose his or her license through refusing to submit. The proposed legislation is a nod towards making distracted driving the same stigma as drunk driving: the thought here is that many people would not drink and get behind the wheel, but are comfortable texting as they drive. Part of this is giving penalties to drivers who do not allow their device to be connected to, which in turn relies on the legal concept of "implied consent." The new bill uses the same implied consent framework for the Textalyzer in that drivers could lose their license through not submitting their device for the test.

There are very real issues associated with the technology, including privacy: although the Cellebrite software is designed not to know what the device was doing at the time, this could still be a point of contention. It is also unclear how device encryption could stop the Cellebrite technology from working: an encrypted device is going to refuse a connection to system logs. And let's not forget that the concept of assuming a distracted driver is using a mobile device is flawed: compared with cars from the 1980s, many modern machines can distract drivers with a number of electronic systems that seemingly rival the Starship Enterprise. We have built-in navigation, parking sensors, rear view cameras, digital climate control systems, energy management displays, media connections, infotainment units that include a touchscreen and numerous buttons plus much duplication in the form of steering wheel controls. A driver is just as likely to be distracted searching for a playlist on an iPod as when he or she might be catching a Pokemon in Pokemon GO.

Putting this to one side, currently distracted driving does not have the same image as drunk driving. In America, texting and riving has been banned in 46 states. A smaller number have made it illegal to use a handheld device whilst at the wheel. Penalties also vary depending on the location as they're much more mild in South Carolina where there are no points given to drivers and fines start at $25. Unfortunately, advances into autonomous or semi-autonomous driving technologies make it easier for drivers to be distracted and, perhaps, get away with it. And as the time of writing, the legal framework is at best grey when it comes to catching and ultimately convicting drivers. Cellebrite's new technology looks to be a step in the right direction.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.
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