Textalyzer Bill Hopes To Reduce Distracted Driving In The U.S.

Category: Science Written by Sean Lennox 7,105 12

NEW YORK  — A bill to let the police in the United States scan drivers’ cell phones after a crash is gaining steam in Albany, but it has privacy advocates worried.

On Monday, lawmakers brought a prototype “textalyzer” to Albany to demonstrate what the police would be able to do at the roadside if the bill passes, reports CBS reports.

Much like a breathalyzer detects whether a driver is drunk, a so-called “textalyzer” would determine if a person was on the phone at the time of the crash.

The new “textalyzer” technology is modeled after the Breathalyzer, and would determine if you had been using your phone illegally on the road.

Lawmakers in New York and a handful of other cities and states are considering allowing police to use the device to crack into phones because, they say, too many people get away with texting and driving and causing crashes.

“Phone records — as I found out the hard way — they’re tough to get [and] it’s an agonizing process,” says Ben Lieberman of New Castle, N.Y., whose 19-year-old son was killed in a car crash in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City, in 2011.

The driver of the car his son Evan was in drifted over the center line and hit another vehicle head-on. Evan, who was sitting in the back seat with his seat belt on, suffered massive internal injuries and died a month later.

The driver initially told police he dozed off while driving, but in reality he had been texting behind the wheel. It took Lieberman six months to figure that out.

“Astonishingly, the phone was in the car, wrecked in the car, and it was at a tow yard,” he says. “It was there for weeks — it was just sitting there.”

Lieberman says police couldn’t check the driver’s phone to see if he was lying because they needed probable cause to get a warrant.

“We often hear, ‘just get a warrant’ or ‘just get the phone records.’ … The implication is that the warrant is like filling out some minor form,” he says. “It’s not. In New York, it involves a D.A. and a judge. Imagine getting a D.A. and a judge involved in every breathalyzer that’s administered, every sobriety test that’s administered.”

Lieberman filed a civil lawsuit to subpoena the phone records, which showed the driver had been texting before the crash. But even getting the phone records won’t tell you much, he says. “It doesn’t detect any of the important distractions, like email, social media or Web browsing.”

So even though New York and most other states ban texting and other kinds of cellphone use while driving, Lieberman says those laws are difficult to enforce.

“The takeaway is, our current law is a joke,” he says.

Lieberman — along with the advocacy group he co-founded — has been working with a company called Cellebrite to develop a “textalyzer.” It would be able to determine whether a driver illegally was using a phone in the moments before a crash.

Cellebrite engineer Lee Papathanasiou demonstrated the device for lawmakers and reporters at the New York State Capitol in Albany earlier this week.

He says a police officer just goes to the driver and attaches a cord to connect the device to the phone. The driver doesn’t even have to let go of the device.

“They can simply just tap one button … and it will process, about 90 seconds or so, and it will show what the last activities were — again that could be a text message and so on — with a time stamp,” Papathanasiou says.

The device would display a summary of what apps on the phone were open and in use, he says, as well as screen taps and swipes. “For example, if it was a WhatsApp message, or a call, it will indicate what the source was, the time stamp, and then what the direction of the communication was — so if it was an outgoing call versus an incoming call.”

Papathanasiou says the technology still isn’t fully developed, but would be tailored to what’s legal in each jurisdiction that approves its use. And he insists that the textalyzer would only capture taps and swipes to determine if a driver was using the phone — that it would not download content — and that it would be able to tell if the driver was using a phone legally, hands-free.

But some privacy advocates and civil libertarians are wary.

“Distracted driving is a serious concern, but this bill gives police power to take and search our phones after almost every fender-bender,” says Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “This is a concern because our phones have some of our most personal and private information — so we’re certain that if this law is enforced as it is proposed, it will not only violate people’s privacy rights, but also civil liberties.”

Traffic fatalities nationwide are on the rise, with close to 40,000 across the country last year, an increase of 6 percent. With a significant number of those fatalities attributed in part to distractions from phones, safety advocates — including Debbie Hersman, who heads the National Safety Council — say this could be big.

“The textalyzer is going to be a game-changer when it comes to handheld devices and potentially even in-vehicle systems,” Hersman says. “It will be the Breathalyzer of our electronics.”

In New York, the bill authorizing police to use the textalyzer has passed out of one committee and is pending in another. Lawmakers are interested in the device in New Jersey and Tennessee, and in Chicago and other cities, too, as they consider ways to get drivers to focus on the road instead of their phones.

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12 thoughts on “Textalyzer Bill Hopes To Reduce Distracted Driving In The U.S.

    1. James

      If this ever does come into effect i give it 6 months and there will be an app to get rid of that info and what if someone else was using the phone and how can it tell if the phone being used was before or after the accident so much over reach and abuse by police i see it coming.

  1. Jerry

    A breathalyzer tells the police the concentration of alcohol – to determine impairment – not where you bought it or what kind it was, is essential for the legal system to properly adjudicate those who by their actions and decisions turn a mode of transportation into a deadly weapon.
    (We NEED one of these for weed impairment as well!)

    A device which analyzes cellphone app activity – to determine if the drive was impaired – and NOT what they were saying or to whom is equally essential for the same reasons.

    Free speech will not be an issue here. Driving impaired is the issue, and tools for the proper determination of that are (unfortunately) necessary.

  2. ER

    What about hands free use? That is still legal, so if I’m using my phone, hand-free, and am rear-ended, can it be deemed my fault because my phone was in use? Or what if a passenger was using my phone? This is a terrible idea with many ways to be falsely accused. A Breathalyzer tests something that only that person could possibly have done.

  3. Dm

    Government over reach..again…I would never allow this to be done to me..I don’t ever touch my phone in a car..I would smash my phone to pieces before I let anyone test it..just try

  4. Kraddic

    I’m gonna marked a new cellphone called ‘The Burner’, its like snapchat for your entire phone, letting you ‘cook’ your phone’s memory and electronics at a moment’s notice with a 911 like code, and then retrieve your data later with a new phone. Make them get a warrant, its your property, and they ARE looking around for the first person to blame, rather than investigating the actual accident scene fully. There is a presumption of guilt here, the warrant getting gives them the time they need to actually evaluate the rest of the evidence, since they are SURE to use this first, then only do their job if they THEN feel there is a reason to.

  5. Dan

    How would the police know exactly what time the accident took place? Would they know the difference between a text message that comes in/goes out the moment before the accident took place? Because everyone I know would very quickly pull their phone out after an accident to either take pictures, record the incident, call/text a loved one, call for help, or just let whomever they were on their way to see know what took place. Would this device be able to determine that, or would people have to start putting their phone down after an accident and wait for the police to arrive (assuming someone else calls the police)?

    This is just stupid. I understand that people use their phones while driving and especially younger people, but since there is no way to timestamp an accident, there is no way to use a timestamped “swipe” in order to coordinate between the two and say that one is the cause of the other.

  6. Nathan Sokalski

    What about WHO was using it? What if the passenger was the user? What if the car was pulled over and the accident happened while they were pulling out?

  7. JW

    Definitely Big Brother Stuff. If a person is involved in an accident whereby they may be the at fault party, this information could be requested or demanded from the phone carrier. Cops don’t need this power which will be abused.

    1. c98f4695dbb74aee95d6376a71410284

      And how can they determine who in the car made the gestures on the device. What if my nephew was playing with it right before it was tested. I get in trouble just so he is not crying in the car from boredom. And how do we also know that their app would be taking or looking for data on the device that they don’t need. Police will abuse the hell out of this AMAP

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