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Catching Distracted Drivers With Technology

Another in my new series on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning. In this segment, host Robyn Bresnahan and I discuss the complexities of a new proposed device to help prove distracted driving, the Textalyzer.

Listen to the column from CBC's Ottawa Morning.

Listen to the 2nd column from CBC's Ontario Morning. The segment starts a 3:08

Distracted Driving

Distracted driving is already a massive problem with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Transport Canada’s latest statistics are from 2016 but even then, 21% of fatal collisions involved a distracted driver, that was up from 16% a decade earlier in 1996. I’m sure the stats have only gotten worse.

So what is distracted driving?

In this context, it’s doing anything that isn’t driving while driving. Of specific concern is using your smartphone while driving. More commonly referred to as “texting and driving”. This is the common phrasing because it lines up with “drinking and driving”, which is well understood to be catatrosphic to fatal for all involved.

The challenge is that there’s a lot more on a smartphone than simple texting. Any use of the device while driving is extremely dangerous and—depending on the jurisdiction you are in—most likely illegal.

In Ontario, distracted driving penalties are more severe than impaired driving warning fines (near the blood alcohol content limit) but less severe than an impaired driving conviction.

The challenge here is proving that a driver was distracted while driving.

Cut and Dried

When it comes to impairment via intoxication, there are specific levels that have been agree upon and legislation written to enforce those limits.

For alcohol, Ontario has set the limit to 80mg of alochol in 100ml of blood or a BAC (blood alcohol content) of 0.08. The warning range is 0.05 to 0.08 BAC.

Testing for BAC is straight forward. A Breathalyzer is used to measure the ethanol in someones breath. Through a series of transformations within the device, that provides a BAC. This is a well defined and proven method.

When Cannabis was legalized in Canada, updates were made to various pieces legislation to cover cannabis consumption. This page from Justice Canada explains the different legal limits.

For THC in Cannabis, the legal limit is 5ng of THC per mL of blood. How much is that practically? That’s really hard to determine as there are a lot of factors at play. What it usually amounts to is trace amounts at least six hours after consumption. MADD has a great fact sheet on this.

What about enforcement? Well in addition to law enforcement’s judgement (similar to drinking and driving), officers use an oral fluid drug screener to measure the level of THC (and other substances) in the blood.

Again, that’s a clear answer based on blood chemistry.

Neither of these methods are perfect but their edges are well determined and there is a long history of analysis of the testing techniques and process.

No Clear Answer

When it comes to smartphones, all of the lines get blurry.

The name “Textalyzer” implies that the device will provide a definitive answer. Something at least as trustworthy as a Breathalyzer. That’s good marketing but far from the truth.

The first significant challenge is what determines “use”?

According to the Ministry of Transporation in Ontario, it is illegal to “view display screens unrelated to driving, such as watching a video”.

Let’s explore a realitic scenario when this comes into play. Let’s assume you have your smartphone securely mounted to your dashboard as required by the distracted driving law and you’re driving in low light or nighttime conditions.

Unless you’re using Apple’s excellent “Do Not Disturb While Driving” or a 3rd party Android equivalent, your phone’s display is going to light up when your receive a notification (local or remote).

Human nature is to react to a sudden change in your environment. Your screen lighting up in dim/dark conditions definitely qualifies.

Will the “Textalyzer” be able to tell you that scenario happened?

Maybe, sometimes, “if…”

System & Application Logs

If the “Textalyzer” gains access to a device (and let’s assume—for the sake of the discussion—that analyzed devices are unlocked willing or under legislation), it will analyze all of the system and available application logs.

Simply put, if the smartphone is making a record of any action, it won’t be available to show law enforcement.

Operating system designers are smart and only log information that will be useful for troubleshooting or protecting the device.

Recording every time the screen lights up, each tap, any swipes, and other action would create a data trail that is just too noisy to be useful.

Significant actions and debug information on crashes are the types of data that is regularly logged by the smartphone.

You may be thinking, why not just provide a list of the data points logged? That would be much easier. But the data logged depends on the phone type and the version of the operating system.

This data could change at any point.

False Assurance

Distracted driving is a serious problem and law enforcement needs a tool that is both simple to use and one that provides reliable results.

Unfortunately, the “Textalzyer” approach isn’t it. The privacy concerns (which we didn’t even address in this post!) are significant but more concerning is the question, “Will it actually work?”.

Our best hope for a technology solution is legislation that mandates features like Apple’s “Do Not Disturb While Driving” to be present in the operating system and on by default.

Yes, users can still select “I’m not driving” or turn off the feature but the direct reminder that this is safety feature has a much better chance at changing driving behaviour.

Please drive carefully and if you don’t have a hands-free accessory for your smartphone, just put it away when you’re driving.