Texting and Driving? Watch Out for the Textalyzer

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A piece in the New York Times discusses new developments in the fight to stop people from texting with their phones while driving.

Surveys suggest that Americans are still texting while driving, as well as using Facebook, Snapchat and other services. Road fatalities, which had fallen for years, are now rising sharply, up roughly 8 percent in 2015 over the previous year according to some estimates. This is partly because people are driving more, but is also due to distraction from digital devices.

The most provocative response from lawmakers in New York is to provide police officers a new device that is the digital equivalent of the Breathalyzer. A roadside test called the Textalyzer. An officer arriving at the scene of a crash could ask for the phones of any drivers involved, and use the Textalyzer to tap into the operating system to check for recent activity. The technology could determine whether a driver had used the phone to text, email or do anything else that is forbidden under New York’s hands-free driving laws, which prohibit drivers from holding phones to their ear. Failure to hand over a phone could lead to the suspension of a driver’s license, similar to the consequences for refusing a Breathalyzer.

The proposed legislation faces hurdles to becoming a law due to privacy concerns, but Félix W. Ortiz, a Democratic assemblyman who was a sponsor of the bipartisan Textalyzer bill, said it would not give the police access to the contents of any emails or texts. It would simply give them a way to catch multitasking drivers. If it were to pass in New York, the first state to propose such an idea, it could well spread in the same way that the hands-free rules did after New York adopted them.

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