Distracted driving is an increasingly serious problem in Pennsylvania, where officials are desperate to find effective solutions.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that while drunk driving arrests fell slightly last year, arrests and citations for driving while distracted have soared 52 percent between 2014 and 2016. Although the numbers are still only a fraction of the number of arrests made for DUI (2,195 in 2014 compared to 3,336 last year), it's still a significantly growing problem. Part of the reason there may not be even more citations at this point, authorities say, is because it can be difficult to ascertain whether someone was in fact using a cell phone illegally behind the wheel.
There may soon be a solution to that, with the development of a new device called the "textalyzer."
It's modeled after the Breathalyzer, and as The New York Times reports, it's being touted as an old strategy to a distinctly modern problem. If someone is pulled over for drunken driving, their breath-alcohol concentration can be measured with a device that requires motorists to offer a breath sample. Results are delivered on-the-spot.
Currently, there is no such device for texting - but it's now in the works. What that has meant in the past is that many distracted drivers have gotten away with illegally texting (and our distracted driving statistics may be skewed lower than they are in reality) because there was no quick way to test. Sure, officers could request phone records, and they will often do that in the case of a serious or fatal car accident. But it's not necessarily a simple process. It generally requires a prosecutor and a judge and a warrant, and that can take time. Plus, information from phone companies won't necessarily show all relevant activity.
The textalyzer technology currently in development would allow officers to plug in their machine to the driver's phone. Within two minutes, the device would generate a report indicating which apps were open on the phone, whether messages were incoming or outgoing and the time and date stamp of actions like phone swipes and taps. Some measures, such as one proposed by lawmakers in New York, would require an automatic driver's license suspension to anyone who refused to hand over their phone for analysis.
Some have raised privacy concerns, though developers of the textalyzer say police would not have access to the contents of any texts or emails, only a breakdown of attempts to multi-task.
As noted by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the state's texting-while-driving ban prohibits drivers from using any interactive wireless communication device to send, write or read any text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle that is in motion. There is currently a $50 fine for first-time violators (plus court costs and fees), and it is a primary offense, meaning police officers can initiate a traffic stop solely for observation of this violation. (The ban excludes use of a GPS device).
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports an estimated 3,500 people were killed in texting-while-driving crashes just in 2015 alone. More than 390,000 were injured. At any given moment during daylight hours, an estimated 660,000 drivers in the U.S. are on their phones.