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‘Textalyzers’ being considered in New York to fight distracted drivers

MIDTOWN, Manhattan — A breathalyzer is one of the most common tools used by law enforcement to ensure lawful driving, but now, New York State is considering the use of textalyzers in the fight against distracted driving.

If it were to pass a bill that includes the use of textalyzers, New York would become the first state to use this device that helps to determine if a person has engaged in distracted driving that leads to a crash or other traffic hazard.

Civil liberties advocates are expressing concern that the device would give governments too much access to private information, but the debate on the issue has just begun.

"The officer can just go up to the car" with the textalyzer device "in the event of an accident," said Lee Papathanasiou, a systems engineer at Cellebrite, the textalyzer's manufacturer, in a demonstration of the machine in Albany last week.

He said that a driver "can hold [their phone] in their hand" while the textalyzer scans the phone. "They don't actually have to release" their phone to a responding officer, Papathanasiou said.

The textalyzer does not record any specific or personal information about a driver's smartphone activity, such as content of texts or emails. It does, however, provide general usage information immediately.

"It'll show you what the last activities were," said Papathanasiou, "that could be a text message [for example], with a time stamp."

But it's got civil libertarians nervous.

"Distracted driving is a serious concern, and that’s why we already have laws that allow police to access phones and phone records when they need to," said Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a statement. "But this bill gives police power to take and search peoples’ phones -- which contain our most personal, private information -- at every fender bender. We don’t yet know if textalyzers can even detect distracted driving. But we are certain that enforcing this proposed law would violate people’s privacy and could potentially impute guilt for innocent activities.”

In contrast, Deborah Hersman, the president and CEO of the National Safety Council, a road safety advocacy group, said in a statement, “Any innovative approach that gets us closer to understanding the problem of distracted driving should be pursued. We need good data to tackle the nearly 40,000 deaths on our nation’s roadways. The textalyzer has the potential to do just that.”

Drivers who spoke with PIX11 News had some concerns about the new technology, but were supportive of it overall.

"I think it goes against privacy a little bit more," said one driver who had to speed off before giving his name, "but if it makes the streets safer, then why not."

"I think its sad that we have to have an app like this because of what has transpired in the past, so much," said a Staten Island driver who gave only her first name, Lauren. "But if it's going to help save lives, then I'm for it," she said.

"I'm okay with that," said another driver in Midtown. Officers, he added, "are not finding out what you were saying, they're just trying to find out, God forbid, you get into a fatal car accident, what went on."

Richard Roth is a veteran litigator who's had cases related to matters of privacy. He said that the textalyzer, with bills calling for its use having been introduced in both houses of the New York State legislature, may actually make sense.

"Bottom line, is they can get [the information] on your phone anyway," he said in an interview, referring to law enforcement officers. "They can get your phone records and find out when you sent a text or when you made a phone call if they want to go through the laborious process of doing it."

"So doesn't it make sense," Roth observed, in the form of a question, "to have an officer right then, right there on the spot see, were you on the phone?"

The textalyzer bill has passed a committee in one house of the New York legislature and is pending in another. State legislatures in New Jersey and Tennessee are also considering similar bills.