There is perhaps another reason why Apple doesn’t want police to easily access iPhones during investigations and it has nothing to do with privacy. Anecdotal evidence suggests smartphones are killing Americans in much greater numbers than terrorists can ever hope to achieve.
It happens when drivers — who typically buckle up for their own safety — opt to put everybody else on the road at risk by using their smartphones while driving. The most likely targets are pedestrians, motorcyclists, and bicyclists that all are seeing spikes in fatalities. Pedestrian fatalities climbed 22 percent from 2014 to 2016 with 5,987 killed by cars.
Research shows drunken driving and using a smartphone while driving on average constitutes the same level of impairment. Yet the supposedly exhaustive National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data showed only 448 deaths linked to smartphone use for 2015. That was 1.4 percent of all accidents compared to drunken driving. Alcohol impaired driving fatalities were at 10,265 or 29 percent of the overall total for 2015.
You might think to yourself what’s the big deal? Numbers don’t lie, right? Well, they lie about as much as each and every one of us does when we tell ourselves it won’t hurt to dial a number or text while driving. Given the NHTSA is a government agency there is little pressure on getting it right. There is no uniform national reporting of traffic data. Each state — and jurisdictions in each state — collect such data differently.
Tennessee, a state that many experts say has one of the most — if not the most — thorough law enforcement accident reporting forms in the country, had 84 traffic fatalities blamed on phone use in 2015. That means a state with 2 percent the nation’s population had 19 percent of the 448 phone-use related driving deaths in all 50 states for that year.
How you ask a question often determines the answer you get.
Kentucky’s data based on percentages suggests phone use in 2015 was a significant factor in upwards of 4,200 deaths nationally as opposed to 10,265 for alcohol impaired driving. If that is in the ballpark you might argue that’s bad but consider this — if it is close it means 4,200 people would likely not have died in 2015 if mobile phone devices hadn’t been invented.
So where does Apple et al come into play in terms of their seemingly righteous demand that individual privacy is sacred, unless of course, they are collecting data to market so they can become even richer?
If law enforcement or insurance companies can determine if a driver was texting, talking or even web surfing on a mobile device it could trigger a backlash to stop treating texting while driving as drunken driving as we did in the 1920s and expose offenders as well as the mobile phone industry to stiffer penalties and costly lawsuits.
It may not work out the same as drunken driving, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the likes of Apple, Samsung, and Google to be the target of lawsuits for essentially enabling a smartphone user who is exceeding reasonable limits to kill people. It is kind of like going after the bartender, the party host or the liquor store owner for allowing someone obviously inebriated or on the cusp to have more booze.
The technology likely exists already to tell when someone is using their phone behind the wheel of a two-ton killing machine that effectively are taking out more and more small objects such as pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists as smartphone use expands.
If blame can be assigned using laws adopted by elected officials under pressure from a fed-up public such as happened when grassroots efforts such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) helped turn the tide on what had been a cavalier attitude in the country for the most part against those responsible for DUI deaths, it could prove to be a very costly proposition for high tech firms that have fought hard to make sure the rules that weigh down old school firms such as product liability doesn’t impact them.
Make no doubt about it; there is a question of corporate liability that goes beyond personal liability.
Budweiser et al dare not engage in any effort that would encourage consumers that buy their products to drink and drive. Apple and Samsung may argue mobile devices are different, but if the NHTSA data was more reflective of reality they may find a growing constituency of Americans who lose loved ones or are maimed in distracted driving accidents attributed to smartphone use clamoring for elected leaders to hold smartphone makers culpable.
The day actually may already be here where overall accidents — and not just fatalities — have surpassed drunken driving as a major menace. Emily Stein, who formed Safe Roads Alliance in 2012 after her father was killed by a distracted driver using a cellphone, said front line officers she talks to on a regular basis already believe the use of devices surpasses drunken driving as a leading cause in traffic accidents.
That is something Apple, Samsung, and Google can ill-afford to have verified.
It might cost them a couple billion of the hundreds of billions of dollars they’ve squirreled away from selling smartphones and efforts to drive everything people do to that platform, without creating real safeguards to prevent known dangerous uses of their products.
Perhaps Larry Page might want to use one of his firm’s smartphones to Google “product liability.”
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.