“Textalyzer” Bill Would Enable Cops to Detect Distracted Driving Like DWI

State lawmakers want to give police the ability to field test motorists’ cell phones following a crash.

Photo: Wikipedia

Sponsored by Brooklyn Assembly Member Felix Ortiz and Westchester State Senator Terrence Murphy, the bill would let investigators use a “textalyzer” — which detects electronic device usage without revealing data stored on the device — after crashes that result in property damage, injury, or death.

Driver inattention and distraction contributed to over 12,000 crashes in New York City in 2014, according to state DMV data, including more than 9,800 crashes that resulted in injury and 38 fatal collisions.

Driver phone records, which open up more data than the “textalyzer” bill proposes to, are obtainable only with a court order. As it stands, it’s practically never clear whether investigators look at phone records after a crash or not. If police were given the tools to check for driver distraction in much the same way they test for the presence of alcohol, it should make for an effective deterrent.

The bill would allow motorists involved in crashes to refuse to submit phones for field testing, absent a subpoena, but drivers who do so would be subject to a license suspension.

The proposed legislation was prompted by the family of a college student, Evan Lieberman, who was killed in 2011 when the driver of a car he was riding in crashed in Orange County. The DMV determined that the driver was using his phone before the crash, which injured two other passengers.

“There’s a significant number of drivers who continually engage in reckless behavior, such as texting, using apps and browsing the web on their mobile devices while behind the wheel,” Ortiz said in a press release. “These people will continue to put themselves and others at risk unless we come up with a protocol to successfully stop them.”

The bill is currently in committee in the Assembly and the Senate.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Curious what Cellebrite’s tech will count as ‘usage’ of the phone;

    My car connects to my phone via bluetooth the second I turn it on, i can do lots of stuff via either buttons on the steering wheel, or voice commands. Or would the ‘textalyzer’ just count usage of the touchscreen, for example?

    As an aside: what would make touchscreen car infotainment systems exempt from this? Take Tesla’s system for example, where everything is done via touchscreen, even changing the AC settings…

    If you’re driving with a passenger; can you just claim you gave your phone to the passenger to use? Does that mean this is only good for single occupancy vehicles?

    Lots of questions that should be answered first.

  • AMH

    Dash controls, like the radio and A/C, contribute to distracted driving too, but no one talks about that.

  • AndreL

    This is a very bad idea. Encrypted phones (trivial on Android 6 already) would have to be opened for inspection. “Textalyzers” would become the latest getaway for nosy searches by police.

  • greenlake101

    Other articles I’ve read about this have seemed to say that it would only look at whether a text message has been sent recently.

  • bolwerk

    There’s a long tradition for car culture opening the door to that!

  • Tyler

    How exactly would “electronic usage” even be useful information?

    My iPhone is constantly sending and receiving data. When I’m driving, it’s sending a constant stream to Google et al. to provide data for those handy green, orange, red, and dark red stripes on traffic maps. It’s updating my apps, it’s asking for updates. All sort of stuff that is a basic digital packet of information that requires NO intervention from me… it’s all just like the packets of information for texting and updating your instagram feed.

    Even phone records aren’t useful other than for phone calls. AT&T doesn’t maintains records of data usage (see above) and text message. But, guess what, almost all of my text messages are iMessages sent to other iPhones. My phone bill usually has a total of 12 text message logged per month. The rest of my texting is just data usages… the same data as my weather app updating.

    Dumb idea for a law that will be discarded after the first court challenge.

  • mattkime

    simply holding people accountable for how they drive? too difficult.

  • ahwr

    Just text messages, or something sent from any messaging app?

  • Sine Metu

    “These people will continue to put themselves and others at risk unless we come up with a protocol to successfully stop them.”

    How does arresting them AFTER they killed someone stop them? I guess maybe it might prevent the next victim but that’s small comfort to the previous one.

  • Reader

    You could make the same argument about breathalyzer tests. Yet knowing one might be penalized differently if one is caught with a high BAC is a powerful deterrent. It’s not something that will work by itself, but it can be part of the toolkit.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Depends, in cars where it’s a physical button/knob, it’s not distracting at all; you can it completely by touch. In cars where it’s a soft button or a touchscreen… I agree with you.

  • reasonableexplanation

    That’s one issue, another would be the voice commands feature on cars: I can compose a text through my car via voice commands. Same goes for siri and other similar systems.

  • Sine Metu

    Sure, hopefully. I agree that we need more tools for sure.

    I’m more interested in prevention than punishment. Breathalyzers didn’t put a dent in drunk driving for many years. Uber is responsible for the recent decline.

    We need technology that will prevent people from using their phones while driving. That is the only sure-fire way to save lives. So to your point, yes we need more tools indeed.

    Relying on behavior modification is never going to work. People are far too selfish to stop simply because they might get in trouble.

  • Joe R.

    The technology for that already exists. Simply block out cells phone signals in traffic lanes with signal jammers. These can be very directional so as to allow reception on the sidewalk, or even in a designated parking area set aside for drivers to use their cell phones.

  • Tyson White

    If this is done after the crash, how will it prevent crashes? The drivers who text believe they won’t get into a crash.

  • Andres Dee

    “The field” is an easy place to either jump to the wrong conclusions or to overlook important information.

    If I were a habitual texter and driver, I’d keep two phones: The one I text on and the one I hand the cop if and when they ask to textalyze it.

    I think it’s far better if the authorities made is a regular practice to actually investigate crashes and to subpoena (on penalty of perjury) all of a person’s records from all their devices related to the crash.

  • bolwerk

    The only surefire way to save lives is to cut back on car dependency, but I’m not sure I’ve seen convincing evidence that authoritarian drunk driving laws have done fuck-all to reduce drunk driving. There was evidently even a spike in drunk driving deaths during the time period those laws were passed. A larger decline happened later, curiously at the around the same time crime started dropping precipitously.

  • saimin

    That’s my question, too. I’m all for criminalizing texting while driving, but is this tool smart enough to distinguish distracted phone use from passing phone use? Passive phone use could be listening to music through the speaker with the phone’s screen turned off. On modern smartphones, texting is just another app, so how does the tool figure out which app that is?

  • Yes, sure it can be the part of the toolkit!

  • Do you really think most people who text would do this, the expense of maintaining a second working, charged, device, with a service plan, and have the wherewithal after a (potentially serious) crash to hide the one you were using and give the police the other one. I don’t buy it.

    “The field” is by far the best place to gather facts and evidence about a potential crime, even if you want to review them later.

  • This, more than anything is the problem.

  • “Not distracting at all”…no, it might be “less distracting”, but its still a little distracting. Let me explain, any time you are doing something *OTHER* than driving, you’re distracted. We generally accept a few small distractions like working the radio, or seeing something out the window, but how many accidents are caused by rubber necking, that’s a distraction too. This is why people who think self driving cars won’t be safer than human drivers are just utterly blind to reality.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Well, let me put it to you this way, adjusting a hardware knob is about as distracting as activating the turn signal, which is to say, not too much.

    You don’t even need cars to be fully self driving to get huge safety benefits. Just having radar/lidar automatic braking will be enough to cut down the number of crashes substantially; and that’s going to be standard on new cars in 2020, so; yay!

  • Hard to say, on a car you drive every day, adjusting the volume….sure, maybe that’s about the same as a turn signal. On a car you don’t know, fidgeting for the right button to sync a bluetooth device, even if its a hardware button, your doing a far more complex task, its going to take more of your attention away. These features in cars get more and more complex every day.

    In any case, yes, the type of features safety features you describe may start improving safety, but even those features, you have people in a full on panic freaking out about losing “control” of their cars. I simply see this as another “fear of unknown” overriding actual risk.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Completely agree.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Pretty good article from driving enthusiasts about the issues with the proposed law:

  • Andres Dee

    Habitual text-and-drivers with means would.

  • *shrug*…maybe. But I doubt it.

  • Joe R.

    Easier for those with means to just bribe cops, judges, or juries. There are a lot of logistical issues having two phones. Besides, it’s not all that difficult to find all the mobile device accounts under your name and then determine if you were using any of them at the time of a crash.

    That said, maybe we should just require devices in cars which block reception to mobile devices when the vehicle is in motion.


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