If you’re one of the many who text, read email or view Facebook on your phone while driving, be warned: Police in your community may soon have a tool for catching you red-handed.
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 other cities and states are considering allowing police to use the device to crack into phones. Because they say too many get away with texting and driving, 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 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 filed a civil lawsuit to subpoena the phone records. These 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.”
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.
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.
“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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