Should Checking Phone Records After Serious Crashes Be Standard Practice?

crashes involving distracted drivers in 2014.
Jean Lachat/Sun-Times
crashes involving distracted drivers in 2014. Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print.]

In September 2006, Matthew Wilhelm, a 25-year-old mechanical engineering graduate who worked for Caterpillar, was cycling on the shoulder of a two-lane highway east of Urbana when he was fatally struck from behind. Police said the driver, 19-year-old Jennifer Stark, was downloading a ringtone on her cell phone at the time, and she was so far off the road that she hit Wilhelm with the driver’s side of the car. She had three recent convictions for speeding and blowing a red light.

Since there was no state law against texting behind the wheel at the time of Wilhem’s death, Champaign County state’s attorney Julia Rietz decided that there were no grounds to prosecute Stark for reckless driving or reckless homicide. As a result, the motorist was only convicted of improper lane use and received just six months probation and a $1,000 fine—a slap on the wrist.

In response to the tragedy, Wilhelm’s parents, Chuck and Gloria, lobbied for the state legislation banning texting, instant messaging, and accessing websites while driving, with some exceptions for police officers and truckers. The bill, called “Matt’s Law,” went into effect in 2010.

Now, using an electronic device while driving garners Illinois drivers a $75 fine. But if a crash results in serious injuries,the driver can be convicted of a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by fines of up to $2,500 or a year in jail. And if the collision results in a death, there are grounds for a Class 2 felony with the potential for fines of more than $25,000 and a jail sentence of seven years. Similar legislation exist in all but four states.

And yet in 2014 there were 3,179 people killed and an estimated 431,000 injured in crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In a surprisingly on-point op-ed recently published by the Tribune, the paper’s editorial board argued that, just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving successfully campaigned for stiffer penalties for DUIs in the 1980s, we need a new movement to make texting and driving socially unacceptable.

However, Streetsblog reader Anna Weaver noted that the Tribune piece didn’t address a basic question: When there’s a serious or fatal crash in the Chicago region, how common is it for the police to examine the driver’s cell phone to determine whether distracted driving may have played a role? It’s good that Illinois has penalties for texting and driving. But if it’s the case that Matt’s Law is rarely enforced after major collisions, that undermines its power as a deterrent.

Weaver’s question is especially relevant in cases where a pedestrian or bicyclist is killed. Since the victim isn’t alive to tell his or her side of the story, if the driver wasn’t obviously intoxicated or speeding, police may be inclined to take his or her word that the the dead person “darted” or “swerved” in front of the vehicle. Routinely checking cell records could counter those claims.

Here’s what I learned from talking to local law enforcement: According to Chicago Police Department spokesman José Estrada, if there’s evidence—such as witness testimony or security camera footage—that a driver was using a phone or other mobile device prior to a serious crash, CPD’s Major Accidents Investigation Unit will seek a court order to view the driver’s phone records. Officers may confiscate and inventory the device postcrash, but they can’t look through its call log without a court order. And receiving permission isn’t a given.

“Just like any search warrant, [the Major Accidents division] has to go through an approval process, and the orders aren’t always granted,” Estrada says.

CPD also indicated that Major Accidents almost always tries to check cell phone records after serious crashes if there is evidence of distracted driving, but almost never does in the absence of evidence. CPD declined to estimate what percentage of search warrant requests are denied.

Read the rest of the article on the Reader website.

  • BlueFairlane

    I’m hesitant at this particular point in history to give more powers to law enforcement to invade our privacy, even if it’s in the name of safety. I can think of any number of ways this could be abused that would come back to bite us all.

  • what_eva

    Agreed. Unfortunately, unlike DUI, there aren’t obvious physical signs that a phone was in use. In the Wilhelm/Stark case, where it was clear Ms. Stark was off the road (since she struck Wilhelm with her driver’s side), that’s evidence of reckless driving. Absent something like that, 4th Amendment is going to block such a search.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well to just block phones from use if in motion, as that would block all kinds of legitimate uses (passenger in a car, let alone in a bus or train). Some apps (eg Waze) put up a warning, but have a “Passenger” button that can obviously be clicked even if you’re the driver.

  • planetshwoop

    I think a different route from law enforcement to motivate/reduce distracted driving is the group who has to pay for it: insurance.

    Insurance companies do not meaningfully measure the safety of your phone in your car. They almost certainly underwrite against a large number of other factors: where you live, how often you drive, if you drive over 80, does your car have airbags etc etc.

    Encouraging reduced cell phone usage through higher premiums could help.

    Also, I think the line between “car” and “phone” is going to increasingly blur as different distractions appear in displays. Simply ensuring there is a docking station and that the display is turned off when using in it would be an easy way to push away distractions. This could provide a way to get what people feel like they need (answer the phone) but eliminate what is dangerous (“oh, lolcatz on facebook!”)

  • thielges

    Call logs don’t reveal all possible digital distractions. I don’t think downloading a ring tone or playing a game would show up on a call log.

    Better would for the cellphone OS to log basic interactive activity: taps, swipes, etc. Just log the event timestamp, not the data: that would protect privacy while monitoring all sources of distraction. Good driver’s phones would show no activity while driving. Bad driver’s phones might record intensive activity right before the crash.

    “…police may be inclined to take his or her word that the the dead person “darted” or “swerved” in front of the vehicle”

    As a greater issue beyond just distracted driving, police officers should always question this explanation. Bicyclists rarely suddenly swerve. Any motorist giving this excuse should be suspected of fabricating witness.

  • SDGreg

    I’m opposed to sobriety checkpoints or pulling people over to check for phone usage. But if a collision occurs, then possible sources of impairment should be checked (alcohol, drug, phone usage, etc.) and there should be stiff penalties for that impairment if it is found to have occurred.

  • thielges

    So long as law enforcement is limited to viewing the time of physical interaction (taps, swipes, etc.) and not the actual data, privacy is protected.

    Call logs on the other hand are a privacy leak.

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