Businesswoman using cell phone while driving
Photograph by Inti St Clair—Getty Images/Blend Images

Civil rights advocates object that the device violates privacy protections.

By Aaron Pressman
May 15, 2017

They call it a Breathalyzer for texting. Amid a growing epidemic of car accidents caused by distracted drivers, an Israeli company is developing a device that reveals whether drivers were texting at the time of their crashes.

New York state is considering a proposal to allow police to use the “textalyzer” to examine the phones of drivers after accidents. But some civil liberties groups worry that the device amounts to an unconstitutional search without a warrant.

The device, made by technology company Cellebrite, can report the exact time when the phone was swiped or clicked, but does not reveal the text of any messages sent or other content on the phone. Police could use the read out as evidence to seek a warrant to determine exactly what was happening on the phone at the time of an accident, a process that can otherwise drag on for months, proponents say.

A bill under consideration by New York legislators would suspend the driver license of people who refuse to turn over their phones to the police for a “textalyzer” check after an accident.

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Most states have laws banning the use of phones for texting while driving, but the rules are widely flouted. And with distracted driving out of control, as many as 40,000 people died in motor vehicles crashes last year, a 14% increase since 2014, the biggest two-year jump in more than 50 years.

But the New York Civil Liberties Union and other privacy rights groups strongly oppose the proposed law.

“This bill gives police power to take and search people’s’ phones—which contain our most personal, private information—at every fender bender,” the NYCLU said in a statement last month. “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.”

The New York bill to allow the use of the Cellebrite device, which won’t be on the market until early next year, was approved New York’s state senate committee on transportation, but is still pending in the finance committee. Similar proposals are under consideration in Tennessee, New Jersey, and the city of Chicago.

The proposed law states that “every person who operates a motor vehicle in the state shall be deemed to have given consent to field testing of his or her mobile telephone and/or personal electronic device for the purpose of determining the use thereof while operating a motor vehicle.”

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