How will new device to help cops detect texting drivers know it wasn't the passenger?

Texting while driving is dangerous and a new device is being developed to help cops catch texting drivers; but how will the device tell the difference between texting drivers, voice-to-text, automatic text replies and a texting passenger?

New device to help cops detect texting and driving
Credit: Scott Davidson

Do you text and drive? That’s illegal in the 44 states that have banned texting while driving and soon cops will have a new device that can supposedly detect texting drivers. Although details seem to be a bit sketchy, during the second annual Virginia Distracted Driving Summit, the Virginia-based company ComSonics said its new radar gun-like device is “close to production.”

Virginia-Pilot reported:

The technology works by detecting the telltale radio frequencies that emit from a vehicle when someone inside is using a cellphone, said Malcolm McIntyre of ComSonics. Cable repairmen use similar means to find where a cable is damaged - from a rodent, for instance - by looking for frequencies leaking in a transmission, McIntyre said.

A text message, phone call and data transfer emit different frequencies that can be distinguished by the device ComSonics is working on, according to McIntyre. That would prove particularly useful for law enforcement in states such as Virginia, where texting behind the wheel is banned but talking on the phone is legal for adult drivers.

There’s no additional information about distances from which texting can be detected. Regarding “privacy concerns,” McIntyre claimed, “The equipment could not decrypt the information that is transmitted by drivers.”

Speeding

You know the cops — or speed cameras — can capture your speed while driving. In cases when the driver is ticketed for speeding, unless it’s a Driver’s Ed vehicle, then it’s not like the car has more than one driver at a time. Here are some questions though; how will the device know the difference between a driver texting and a passenger texting? What if the reply was setup previously to send an automatic response? How will the device know the difference between Bluetooth hands-free texting, or other apps that read texts and emails aloud and then send voice-to-text replies? Some experts claim that “voice-to-texting is just as dangerous as manual texting” and “hands-free devices aren’t safer than handheld ones,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is illegal.

No state has completely banned cell phone use for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, but 38 states have banned cell phone use by novice drivers and 20 states have banned cell phone use by bus drivers. 44 states plus D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have banned text messaging for all drivers. “All but five have primary enforcement. Of the six states without an all driver texting ban, four prohibit text messaging by novice drivers and three restrict school bus drivers from texting.” 14 states have banned hand-held cell phone use.

Texting while driving United States Marine Corps

Texting while driving is dangerous. We’ve all experienced seeing vehicles ahead weaving in and out of a lane as if the driver were drunk only to later see that driver using a cell phone. Yet how will the ComSonics text-detecting device know the difference between the driver and the passenger texting? If the police pull over the vehicle and the driver vows he or she wasn’t texting, yet the text-detecting device tells the officer otherwise, then will the driver and any passengers hand over their phones as “proof?” Can law enforcement insist upon seeing the phone? The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (pdf), “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.”

Will a driver experience a standstill while a cop awaits a warrant? What if you are going to work and need to clock in? Will drivers voluntarily “unlock” and handover their phones as proof? If so, what if the officer happens to have a mobile gadget such as a Cellebrite Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED), which can suck data from a phone in under two minutes?

While the original device has reached end of life, there are “new-and-improved” UFED products that are still popular choices for forensic experts as seen by the company taking home awards for six years in a row. Cellebrite won two Forensic 4:cast awards; the company’s UFED Touch won for Phone Forensic Hardware of the Year and its UFED Physical Analyzer was named as Phone Forensic Software of the Year.

Evidence Magazine discussed the future of decentralized mobile forensics; a future in which non-experts in the field will be involved in the forensic process by having the “right tools.” Surely most people, police included, would fall under the not-a-tech-or-forensic-expert category, but the article states:

As the trend toward decentralization grows, decision making in the field will only continue to improve. Ultimately, not only will investigators be equipped to collect evidence from a mobile device at the scene, they will also have the capacity to run the data they retrieve against larger databases of criminal information in real time in order to make faster, more informed and more effective decisions.

Who knows how accurate the radar gun-like text detector will be? Perhaps it won’t involve police pulling people over at all, meaning it could be like some speeding tickets or toll bridges in which fees or penalty fees are mailed out based on the address associated with the captured license plate photo?

I’m not a fan of texting while driving, but right now there are just too many questions unanswered about the device meant to help cops find drivers who are texting.

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