Lawmakers eye "textalyzer" bill for distracted drivers

May 15, 2017 05:59 PM

ALBANY – A bill moving through the New York State Legislature would allow police to examine your phone if you’ve been involved in a traffic accident. But some groups are raising privacy concerns.

We know about breathalyzers to see if someone has been drinking and driving. But what about "textalyzers" to see if someone is using their phone before a crash. One state senator says the technology is almost ready.

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"Something must be done about it," says Sen. Terrence Murphy, the second-term Republican senator representing Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties. He says he wants to make sure what happened to one of his constituents doesn’t happen to anyone else. 19-year-old Evan Lieberman was killed in a car crash in 2011. His father had to get subpoenas for phone records to prove the other driver was texting.

Sen. Murphy says he wants to make it easier to find out if drivers involved in crashes were using their phones. "[Police] get your phone, it’s a handheld computer, and they’ll just plug it right in," said Murphy. "90 seconds, it downloads only the usage, that’s it. Nothing else."

The technology to get that information is still in development by a company called Cellebrite. Murphy says what would be seen from the information would be if a phone was being used, not the content of those texts or e-mails. "It would have no phone numbers, it would have no names, it would have nothing that you were talking or texting about, e-mailing about," said Murphy. "It would just be the usage of the phone."

Drivers had mixed feelings when asked about the bill.

"If a little tween hit me, I’d want more than just answers, I’d want action," said Jann Liberty of Wynantskill. "I think it’s a great idea."

"My phone’s private and I have a passcode on it for a reason," said Christine Ferraro of Clifton Park. "I think it’s a little bit an invasion of privacy. I wouldn’t want them doing that to me."

The New York arm of the American Civil Liberties Union, the NYCLU, has serious privacy concerns about the bill. "We question whether expanding law enforcement’s authority to essentially seize and search a phone is the most effective way to address what is a legitimate concern [about distracted driving]," said Robert Perry, the NYCLU’s legislative director.

Perry says that people looking for technology to be a silver bullet for distracted driving may be sorely disappointed. "A driver may pass his mobile phone to a passenger," said Perry. "An accident occurs and now the driver is implicated in distracted driving simply because the phone was in use. The point is the technology is not going to be a simple, clear, and absolute solution."

Perry says that the national government is already working with car companies to put technology in automobiles to prevent phones from texting or accessing Facebook while driving, kind of like an "airplane mode" for cars. "The technology actually may hold the solution to the problem if we’re a little inventive and creative about it," said Perry.

Murphy says he’s looking to address those concerns in the bill, and is hopeful it will pass by the end of session. "Make sure we do it the right way the first time and not have to go back to it," said Murphy.

If the bill passes, it would make New York the first state in the nation to give police access to the technology.

More information:

"Textalyzer" bill


Ben Amey

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