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A roadside test for texting and driving?

Ben Lieberman has been working on a proposal that would allow police at accident scenes in New York to immediately examine drivers’ cellphones with a device to determine if they’d been tapping, swiping or clicking. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Ben Lieberman, whose son was killed in a crash involving a distracted driver six years ago, wants to find a way to stop drivers from texting and driving before other teens are killed.

He has given talks at schools. He has attended law enforcement conferences. He has seen people throw up their hands over the lack of a reliable field test to determine for sure whether a driver in a crash had been texting around the time of impact.

“I kept hearing over and over again, there’s no such thing as a Breathalyzer for distracted driving,” Lieberman said. “So I asked why not?”

Now such a device seems close at hand.  But Lieberman has also found that lawmakers and others, citing privacy concerns, are reluctant to embrace it. As New York State Assembly considers a bill that would allow law enforcement officials to use a handheld device that can detect whether a motorist was using his smartphone while driving,  Lieberman is hoping attitudes will change. This is the second time the bill has been introduced.

“We don’t have to accept that this exists,” he said.

The device, known as a Textalyzer, is designed to analyze a smartphone to determine whether its user had been tapping the keyboard or swiping at its screen. The device would not be able to read the messages or other content. But some have raised privacy concerns.

“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,” Donna Lieberman (no relation), executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union told the Associated Press.

This Harvard professor used TV sitcoms to fight drunken driving. Can he do the same for distracted driving?

Lieberman says the ACLU’s fears are misplaced. No one’s interested in giving police carte blanche to mine people’s phones for private information without a warrant, he said.

“A phone’s not a religious object,” Lieberman said. “The content’s what’s sacred. With all these technological breakthroughs, it didn’t seem like it was so far-fetched to separate privacy from use on a phone.”

Lieberman, 55, attended the University of Maryland to study journalism before going into finance and settling down in Chappaqua. He is like a lot of advocates for change. He didn’t think about becoming the embodiment of a public issue until a terrible event touched his life.

In the summer of 2011, his son, Evan, was home from freshman year at the University of Connecticut. He had lined up a construction job with some other guys his age, who piled into a car to get to work one morning. They were on a twisty stretch of road near Bear Mountain when their driver crossed the double yellow line,  smashing head-on into a Jeep.

Evan, who was riding in the back seat, was critically injured. The Jeep’s driver had to be hospitalized, and two other occupants in Evan’s car were seriously injured, too. The driver of Evan’s car, who was also a teenager, told authorities he had fallen asleep at the wheel. He suffered a broken wrist in the crash.

That night, doctors told Evan’s parents he had only a 10 percent chance of survival because of the extent of internal injuries. And yet for the next month, Evan seemed like was going to beat the odds, through one surgery after another. But it was not to be.

“It was an experience that just will never ever leave me,” Lieberman said.

In that agonizing month, Ben Lieberman was focused only on his son’s fight for survival, and not how or why. But the more Lieberman thought about the driver’s story, the more he doubted it.

As part of a civil suit, the Liebermans gained access to the driver’s mobile phone records. What they showed was that the teenage driver hadn’t fallen asleep that morning. He had been texting. He couldn’t remember about what, but it was some sort of brief exchange with his mom.

“I expected it,” Lieberman said. “But when I saw it, it was knee-buckling.”

It was an ordeal to obtain the phone records, Lieberman said. None of the other occupants in the car could recall whether the driver of Evan’s car was texting. None of the investigators had evidence that he been texting, which is often the case. Unless you have an eyewitness or a confession, it’s difficult to know whether the person was distracted by a smartphone at the moment of impact. It’s not like drunken driving.

“If you text, you’re not going to get bloodshot eyes,” Lieberman said.

Since his son’s death, Lieberman began working to educate himself and the public on the problems of distracted driving. He has been frustrated by the lack of urgency toward the problem, and even the lack of shame people show about texting while driving.

Like many others, he sees people all around him using their phones while driving — even during a recent downpour — and yet there’s not even a lot of good statistical data establishing its connection to traffic fatalities. The National Conference of State Legislatures says 14 states, along with the District of Columbia, have banned the use of handheld phones by drivers of all ages. But law enforcement has also found those laws difficult to enforce.

That’s where Cellebrite’s Textalyzer comes in. Lieberman said he has no financial interest in the company, which bills itself as a specialist in mobile data and data forensics, according to its website. The company has a prototype now, and it would need at least six to nine months to become operable, Lieberman said. But for him, it’s past due.

“I found a problem that I can’t turn my back on,” Lieberman said. “Our politicians don’t necessarily move on their own.”

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