Cops Could Soon Use 'Phone Breathalyzers' To Catch Texting Drivers

The "textalyzer" would scan your phone for usage after a crash.

New York state legislature is currently looking at bill known as “Evan’s Law” that would allow police to use a device called a “textalyzer” to analyze a driver’s cell phone for signs of distracted driving.

If the state passes the bill, New York would be the first state in country to implement such a dramatic measure. Right now the textalyzer, which gets its name from the breathalyzer, is still in development. Tech company Cellebrite has developed a prototype.

The aim of the textalyzer to scan a driver’s phone after an incident to show app activity, whether apps were running in “hands-free” modes, and whether or not a user was swiping or tapping. Although the device isn’t supposed to capture any personal information, many are concerned that the legislation could lead to invasions of privacy.

“Evan’s Law,” was named after Evan Lieberman, who died when a 2011 head-on car crash put in him the hospital for a month. Family and friends questioned whether the accident was caused by the other driver texting.

“What we found out through this whole mess was that there is absolutely no police protocol for distracted driving when a crash occurs,” Evan’s father, Ben Lieberman, told HuffPost. 

The family ended up obtaining cell phone records for the other driver, who claimed he fell asleep at the wheel, in a civil suit. The logs proved that the driver was texting after all, but also revealed the limitations of getting information from cell phone records.

“I know some people are saying, ‘just get the phone records,’” Lieberman said. “And the phone records are obsolete. They don’t give you internet, they don’t give you a simple email...let alone using Facebook or Snapchat or Pokemon Go or anything like that.” 

Lieberman says he realized there was a void in what police could do after a crash to prove a driver wasn’t paying attention, and he then approached Cellebrite with his idea. The textalyzer, he says, is about proving phone usage, not obtaining personal information.

The technology is supposed to look only at swiping and tapping activity, without the phone needing to leave its owner’s sight. The prototype allows officers to download the data onto a connected tablet, Lieberman said.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has opposed the bill and the device.

“Part of the problem with this legislation, and why we’ve taken a stance against it, is because we are forced to speculate as to whether technology can accurately tell if the driver was using the phone while driving and whether it’s capable of capturing private or personal information on the phone,” Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel for the NYCLU told HuffPost. 

State Senator Mike Ranzenhofer, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, told WGRZ that if he thought the textalyzer was “trolling through your information,” he wouldn’t be support it. His office did not respond to a request for comment from HuffPost.

Privacy advocates are not convinced. 

“One thing we’ve learned from some of our other privacy work is that often when law enforcement does digital data, either physically on the phone or going to a provider...that data is stored for a long period of time and it can reveal a lot of information about you,” Richardson said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving results in 391,000 injuries and 3,477 fatalities in 2015. Proponents of the textalyzer say it could help to deter drivers from reaching for their phones and combat what the National Safety Council calls an underreported problem. 

“Evan’s Law” is still in committee and has to pass a vote by both the state senate and assembly before it can be presented to Governor Andrew Cuomo.