Law would allow cops to search phone after crash

Texting and driving

By Ed Payne

(CNN) — You’ve been in an accident. The police officer goes through the normal drill, asking for your license and registration.

Then she goes a step further. “Could I have your cellphone, please?” she says.

New legislation proposed by a New Jersey state Sen. James Holzapfel would let cops confiscate cellphones if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe that the driver was talking or texting when the wreck occurred.

Officers would be required to return the phone after thumbing through its history.

“A lot of your accidents are happening due to distracted driving,” Fair Lawn Police Sgt. Brian Metzler told CNN affiliate News 12. The trick, he said, is proving it.

“They’re just going to say they’re not paying attention. ‘Were you on the cellphone?’ ‘No, I wasn’t the cellphone’ and it ends right there.”

The legislation is designed to cut down on distracted driving. But it comes at a time when revelations that the government has been monitoring our phone calls and online activities have shaken our sense of privacy.

The bill set off alarm bells with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

“Our State and Federal Constitutions generally require probable cause before authorizing a search, particularly when it comes to areas that contain highly personal information such as cellphones,” said Alexander Shalom of the ACLU-NJ.

“The legislature cannot authorize searches unless there is probable cause, therefore the bill is likely susceptible to a constitutional challenge.”

The distraction of technology

While the New Jersey bill is a bold new move in the battle against distracted driving, driver distractions are hardly new.

Everything from billboards, to beautiful scenery, to pretty girls, have distracted drivers since the advent of automobiles.

But new technologies are creating a growing storm of distractions for drivers, like cellphone apps, GPS units and mp3 players, with the thousands of songs they put at our fingertips.

In addition to taking a driver’s eyes off the road and hands off the wheel, the devices can engage people’s minds so that they’re paying less attention to the task of driving, experts say.

The cost of distracted driving

An often-quoted study on distracted driving known as the “100 car study” was conducted in 2003 and 2004 — before the introduction of Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), the iPhone (2007), and iPhone apps (2008).

Since then, 11 states have banned talking on hand-held cellphones while driving, while another 41 states have outlawed texting when operating a motor vehicle.

Earlier this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said some 3,000 people were killed and 387,000 injured in 2011 in accidents involving distracted drivers.

But police reports are not a reliable source of information for the cause of distracted driving accidents, said Anne McCartt of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The cause of accidents is frequently not reported, and there are very large differences across the states, McCartt said.

The best studies, she said, used phone records to determine if drivers were possibly distracted at the time of a crash, she said.

Just what New Jersey has in mind.

Information from a report by Mike M. Ahlers is included in this story.

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