The Textalyzer, a device that would let police determine at the scene of an accident if a driver was using a phone, is the brainchild of Ben Lieberman. Lieberman’s 19-year-old son, Evan, was killed in a 2011 accident in New York State caused by distracted driving.
After his son’s death, Lieberman spent months trying to gain access to phone records, which ultimately showed that the driver of the car his son was in had been texting.
“We kept hearing there’s no such thing as a Breathalyzer for distracted driving,” he says, “so we set out to create one—and to pass legislation to support it.”
But the idea of letting police tap into phones on the spot—without a warrant from a court—makes privacy advocates nervous.
“It really invites police to seize phones without justification or warrant,” says Donna Lieberman (no relation to Ben), the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 2014, the Supreme Court (in Riley v. California) ruled that police can’t search the contents of a cellphone without a warrant, even after an arrest. But supporters of the Textalyzer say the device wouldn’t violate this standard because it wouldn’t be able to access any private information; it would simply tell the police, within about 90 seconds, whether anyone has activated a keyboard, typed on a keyboard, or swiped the screen of the device. As an additional privacy protection, the officer doesn’t even need to touch the phone; he can use the device in close proximity to it.
The authors of the New York bill that would authorize police to use the Textalyzer say they’ve based the concept on the same “implied consent” legal theory that allows police to use the Breathalyzer: Because driving is a privilege, rather than a right, it comes with conditions and can be revoked. When drivers get a license, they are, in effect, consenting in advance to a Breathalyzer, or else they risk the suspension of their license.
Other states, including Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, have already expressed interest in the Textalyzer.
Ben Lieberman believes that increasing the likelihood of getting caught would go a long way toward preventing people from using their phones behind the wheel. The Textalyzer, he says, “could be an integral part of seeing a vast improvement.” —Patricia Smith