Many an accident has happened over the past couple of decades because of people’s blatant disregard for repeated warnings about not using mobile phones while driving cars, riding bikes, or operating any kind of heavy machinery in general. Over the better part of the past decade, most states in the U.S. and indeed, most jurisdictions around the world, have banned texting by drivers. Public awareness campaigns have also tried to persuade people to get off their phones while they are in the driver’s seat. The problem, however, is only getting worse by each passing year, and reports about serious injuries and even fatalities from cellphone-related vehicular mishaps are becoming all too common.
So, with the public seemingly unwilling or unable to control their cellphone addiction even when behind the wheel, legislators and public health experts in the U.S. are seriously considering pushing through proactive measures that would treat distracted driving like drunken driving. As part of their efforts, some New York lawmakers are weighing the pros and cons about authorizing the NYPD to use a new device called “Textalyzer” that many public health officials and safety experts believe has the potential to dramatically reduce the number of accidents stemming from cellphone-related distractions.
What is Textalyzer and How Does it Work?
Textalyzer is an electronic device that is said to have the ability to check if a driver was using their phone or tablet while operating a vehicle. To determine whether a particular device was in used at a given point in the time, it will need to be plugged into the textalyzer, which will then scan the device to report the exact time when the phone was swiped or tapped. While the textalyzer is yet to be officially unveiled, it is said to look like a tablet about the size of an iPad. Made by an Israeli tech company called Cellebrite that was in the news last year for reportedly helping the FBI hack into the iPhone of San Bernardino shooting suspect Syed Farook, the technology has its own share of critics, who are fighting proposed legislation that would enable police officers to legally use the device to charge motorists with distracted driving.
Why is the Textalyzer Controversial?
While proponents of the textalyzer claim that it will help bring down the rampant usage of mobile phones while driving, opponents are up-in-arms over what they perceive to be yet another attack on their privacy by the government. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union and other privacy rights groups, the device is way too invasive and may prove to be a serious threat on an individual’s right to privacy if implemented without clear and unambiguous safeguards. In a statement released a few weeks ago, the NYCLU even argued that the proposed bill to empower police officers to use the textalyzer to examine the phones of drivers is a serious violation of privacy and is as such, unconstitutional.
On its part, Cellebrite claims that its technology is only designed to track swipes and taps and, will not read any actual content, like messages, mails, images, audio or video. Now, whether the technology will genuinely refrain from collecting private information or just avoid revealing that to the police in an effort to circumvent the Forth Amendment right to privacy is something that’s yet to be verified by any independent third-party, so don’t expect the controversy surrounding the subject to die down any time soon.
What Does the Textalizer Law Propose and When Will it Come into Effect?
The legislation to implement the use of textalyzers was introduced in the New York Senate last year, and was promoted by lobby group ‘Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs)’, whose co-founder, Ben Lieberman, lost his son, Evan, a few years ago in a vehicular accident caused by a distracted driver. The proposed law, which has received support and faced opposition in equal measure, was approved by the New York Senate Transportation Committee and in currently waiting for the approval of the finance committee. Similar legislative action is also being considered actively by lawmakers and administrators in Tennessee, New Jersey and Illinois.
In case the proposed law comes into effect, the police will be required to inform motorists involved in an accident that their license is liable to be suspended with immediate effect pending a textalyzer scan of their mobile device(s). In case the driver “refuses to acquiesce to such field test”, the license can even be revoked. The proposed law also states that, every driver “shall be deemed to have given consent” to the scanning of his or her mobile device to determine whether they were using it in the seconds leading up to the mishap.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last month that the state’s Traffic Safety Committee would examine the textalyzer to see if it’s ready for prime time. As of now, there’s no concrete date for the technology to be implemented, but Cellebrite says that it is ready to bring its device to the market early next year.
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Can the Textalyzer Really Reduce Distracted Driving?
As mentioned earlier, the use of phones while driving is not just frowned upon, but also banned in most countries around the world. However, as we know all too well, those rules are widely flouted by people everywhere. While the scourge of DUI has been successfully tackled to a large extent by the use of the breathalyzer, proponents of the textalyzer are hoping that the use of the new technology will help the law enforcement fight the problem of driving while using a phone. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but hopefully, we’ll have a balanced system that will help us cut down on distracted driving without infringing on our privacy and civil liberties.