Although Texas doesn’t (yet) have a texting-while-driving ban, if budding technology starts a trend, cities with bans like Austin and San Antonio may soon allow local law enforcement to use a tool similar to the Breathalyzer, the Textalyzer, to determine if someone was texting and driving before an accident.
State lawmakers in New York and Tennessee, as well as officials in the City of Chicago, are currently exploring the idea of equipping law enforcement with these devices.
The concept is simple, though invasive. An officer arriving at the scene of an accident would ask for the phones of the drivers involved. By simply plugging the Textalyzer into the phone, they would be able to access the phone’s operating system and check the user’s recent activity.
In New York, where usage of phones while driving is already prohibited, they plan to add to their hands-free laws a provision that failure to provide your phone to an officer could result in driver’s license suspension. New York already has some of the strictest punishments for texting while driving, which include a 120-day suspension for motorists under 21, and a yearlong suspension for second offenses.
The technology immediately draws concerns about privacy and rights against unjust searches. Some opponents point to the bill potentially encouraging police to seize phones without good cause under this provision.
The Tennessee legislation somewhat restricts law enforcement’s usage of the technology by only permitting it in instances of a serious crash resulting in bodily harm.
Supporters of the law say that it is modeled after the “implied consent” used for breathalyzers. Simply put, they argue that when drivers obtain a license they are consenting in advance to take a breathalyzer or risk license suspension. The Textalyzer legislation would work in a similar fashion.
The technology is built by Cellebrite, a mobile data technology company that specializes in mobile data forensics and mobile lifecycle management. The professional hacking company charges $250,000 a year for a subscription service for unlocking phones, or it will unlock individual phones for $1,500 with a court order.
As these three jurisdictions toy with the idea of bringing in this technology, other areas with similar bans may begin to explore the use of Textalyzers. While texting and driving is certainly unsafe behavior, it’s hard to believe that arming law enforcement with the ability to access personal communications will significantly reduce the behavior.