#323 Mad Mothers and Big Brothers

Stupid can’t be fixed, so it’s been said. But perhaps it can be monitored more closely. A new tattletale device has that potential.

In ‘English Speaking’ 272 (June 2011), I reported on a study carried out by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse. CCSA reported that drug use and driving get mixed a lot more often than we might think. Working with police, researchers collected voluntary breath and saliva samples from 2,840 drivers in BC. They found that, while 9.9 per cent had been drinking, 7.7 per cent tested positive for drugs. Marijuana and cocaine were the drugs most commonly found.
The researchers also examined 14,000 driver fatalities and found that 33 per cent tested positive for drugs while 37 per cent were positive for alcohol. At the time, there was no roadside test for THC intoxication, other than a peace officer’s “reasonable suspicion” followed by a trip to the cop shop for a blood test.
Now UBC Okanagan engineering professor Mina Hoorfar has developed a handheld device, known as a microfluidic breath analyzer that can detect the presence of THC in a person’s breath. It’s still in the testing phase but showing promise.
All well and good then—as far as it goes. But plenty of studies have also shown that driving while distracted by a mobile phone (texting or talking) is at least as dangerous as driving drunk or stoned. If only there were a device that could track when drivers were on the phone or texting…
Well, now there is.
A US company called Cellebrite has developed a device they call the Textalyzer that can extract “metadata” from a mobile phone: that is, how and when a mobile device was being used. Cellebrite says this metadata won’t disclose any personal information such as who was being contacted or the nature of the message—just the type of contact and the time the device was in use.
The idea is that police arriving at a crash scene can analyze the driver’s mobile phone to tell if they were texting or on the phone at the time of the accident. If that were the case, they could then proceed with a prosecution for distracted driving. By extension, the Textalyzer could also be used to catch transgressors based on suspicion—like a breathalyzer at a roadside screening check point, for example.
It’s no surprise that Cellebrite’s device has run afoul of a citizen’s right to privacy. The US Supreme Court has ruled in two separate cases that police have no right to search a person’s mobile phone—even if they can show they’re only collecting metadata—without a warrant authorized by the judiciary. (Apparently, I’m told, under existing Canadian law, a warrant would not be required here…)
Perhaps the Textalyzer could be useful to discourage texting and driving. But it would only be part of the solution. Any program that tries to change attitudes and behaviours (like seat belts, or drinking and driving) has to use a carrot as well as a stick. The carrot—consistent messaging intended to make the errant behaviour socially unacceptable through campaigns like Drop It And Drive; and the stick—ever stiffer penalties for miscreants, especially if there’s an increased chance of getting caught, which is where the Textalyzer might help. Incidentally, BC has recently increased its minimum first offence distracted driving ticket to $543 from $167—though PEI has the stiffest penalties with a maximum fine of $1200.
A crash survivor herself, Karen Bowman became involved with the Drop It and Drive campaign when her eight-year-old daughter was seriously injured in a car crash. A vehicle driven by a distracted driver hit the car she was travelling in. Since then, Karen has become a spokesperson for the campaign
“Our use of science and real-life stories over statistics has proven effective in changing driver behaviours and beliefs,” says the Drop It And Drive website (dropitanddrive.com).
I hope Karen and her colleagues understand they’re in for the long haul: effecting behavioural change and social acceptance on the scale of mobile device use while driving could take at least a generation.

Tars and Stripes
In much of Canada, our northern climate means we experience all four of its seasons: Nearly Winter, Winter, Still Winter, and Construction. As motorcyclists, we hope construction brings us fresh swaths of creamy smooth tarmac covering up the potholes and heaves. But budgets for street repairs being what they are, what we get instead are crack-filling tar stripes.
Any rider who’s rounded a blind curve on a hot summer day to be confronted with a tangle of tar stripes knows what a sphincter-clenching experience that can be, as tires slip and slide struggling for grip. And we all know at least one rider who’s gone rubber side up as a result.
There’s been some progress on this in the US: in response to protests from the American Motorcyclist Association, New York State has introduced guidelines for crack sealing strips: no more than two inches wide and no more than 1/8-inch deep—though the State also points out that they can only apply this rule to its own roads, which excludes county and federal highways. And in Oregon, contractors now add sand to the tar to enhance traction.
As usual, though, motorcyclists represent such a small constituency that our concerns rarely get attention. Unless we make a disproportionate amount of noise—and not the loud pipes kind! So if you’ve been bitten by a tar snake, let your provincial or municipal engineering department know.

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