New “Textalyzer” Catches Distracted Drivers Phone-handed

New technology may help law enforcement catch motorists “phone-handed” who text while driving. The new “textalyzer” technology would allow law enforcement to determine whether a driver texted when behind the wheel, particularly immediately before an accident.

For law enforcement to get phone records, they must acquire a warrant first – but the textalyzer would not require this time-consuming step, reports NPR. From the story:

“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. ….

“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.”

Leiberman 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.

Liberman may have found an answer to the problem. He co-founded Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs), an advocacy group working with developers to create the textalyzer. A police officer can simply plug it into a driver’s phone, press a button, and within seconds download relevant phone activity, including a summary of what apps on the phone were open and in use, as well as screen taps and swipes. In New York, a bill authorizing textalyzer use has passed out of one committee and is pending in another.

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The device does not download content, reports the device’s developers – but even so, some have concerns about its overreach.

“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.”

Distracted driving is, without question, a serious concern. Traffic fatalities are on the rise, and many attribute distracted driving as a likely contributor. Fatalities nationwide increased by six percent last year, or 40,000. Yesterday, Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) Secretary Pete K. Rahn issued a “call-to-action” to eliminate highway fatalities in Maryland.  Preliminary data collected by MDOT indicates that in 2016, 523 people died in traffic crashes on the state’s roads, up from the 521 who died in 2015. According to the MDOT Highway Safety Office’s Toward Zero Deaths campaign, 185 people die every year in Maryland from distracted driving crashes, and more than 27,000 more are injured.