Lots of people use their phone while driving. But it's difficult for police to identify whether a driver is texting behind the wheel or just using their phone to make a call. A company in Virginia called ComSonics is developing a technology that could help police tell the difference.
Texting and driving is a killer combination: The National Safety Council says it causes roughly 1.6 million accidents every year, leading to 330,000 injuries. Eleven teenagers are killed every day in accidents due to texting and driving. The National Highway Safety Administration says a texting driver of any age is six times more likely to cause an accident than an intoxicated one.
The Virginian-Pilot reports the ComSonics device works by measuring radio frequencies. When you use your phone, it emits detectable frequencies, which change depending on what exactly you're doing with your device. Calling someone and texting someone each have unique frequency signatures, which this device would pick up on. ComSonics got its start as a company developing tools for electricians to find where cables were broken using a similar technology.
According to distraction.gov, a site dedicated to gathering information about distracted driving, 44 states ban texting while driving. Twelve states ban using a handheld phone for any reason behind the wheel. However, those bans are not particularly effective on their own. Enforcement by police is a critical part of making sure drivers obey the law.
Alan Goldfarb is an attorney in Miami who worked on a wrongful death case caused by a texting driver. He said he's very aware of the scourge of texting and driving and said ComSonics' technology was a step in the right direction.
"Anything that could stop this rampant problem is excellent," Goldfarb told Fusion. "I've been practicing law for 42 years. Anything that can help safety and save lives, it's worth an improvement."
A representative for ComSonics told the Pilot the frequencies will be encrypted, so police won't have access to what you're texting, just that you're texting. But many questions remain about the device: Will it be able to detect whether it's the driver or a passenger texting? Can it differentiate between someone texting and someone using a GPS app? What about people who use a Bluetooth device to do voice-to-text messaging? Will the device's findings hold up as evidence in court? (ComSonics did not respond to repeated phone calls from Fusion about this story.)
Fusion asked Goldfarb about the privacy issue — the idea that police may be able to read people's texts with a radar gun. He said it wasn't concerning to him considering the lives at stake. He went a step further and suggested police should be allowed to review cell phones at accident sites to see whether the driver was using it to send a text.
"I think the police have an absolute right to do that," Goldfarb said. "If an accident happens, or especially a fatality, what's the harm in seeing a text?
The Pilot reports the device is "close to production."