The Rise of the Textalyzer

girl texting while driving

We’ve all heard of a Breathalyzer, which of course police use to test drivers’ blood alcohol levels, but since the alarming trend of texting and driving has reached dangerous and deadly extremes, there’s a new tool that might soon be in the hands of law enforcement: the Textalyzer. New York State lawmakers recently introduced legislation aimed at giving police officers a quick way to assess whether drivers used their phones while operating a vehicle to text, email, check Facebook or Snapchat, or do anything else forbidden under state law—a privilege law enforcement does not currently have. The idea is that distracted driving (especially texting) is a killer, and drivers need a more serious investigative tool — and deterrent — to make the roads safe.

Linguistically, the similarities between “Breathalyzer” and “Textalyzer” are intentional and meant to draw parallels between drunk driving and distracted driving. If the comparison seems overly dramatic, it’s not: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 40 percent of all crashes are alcohol-related, while cell phone use accounts for 26 percent of all traffic crashes, a number that’s almost certainly underreported, and that texting increases a driver’s crash risk by 23 percent. This underreporting leads the public to underestimate the seriousness of the risks of cell phone use while driving, but historically cell phone use data has been very difficult to obtain.

Textalyzers let police see if a driver was using his phone - but not the contents of his messages.

What is a Textalyzer?

The Textalyzer is a device would allow a police officer to check the phone use of any drivers at the scene of a crash by tapping into the phone’s operating system to check for recent activity, reports The New York Times. (Though law enforcement would not be allowed to see the contents of texts or emails or Facebook messages, etc.) Failure to comply could mean license suspension, which is the same penalty as failing to comply with a Breathalyzer. The hope is that if drivers know police officers are armed with Textalyzers, they will be much more hesitant to use their phones while driving.

Seven years ago, New York became the first state to place restrictions on cell phone use while driving, setting a precedent that soon spread to other states, writes The New York Times. Now, 46 states have passed laws restricting cellphone use while driving (though some are much more restrictive than others). Proponents of the Textalyzer hope its use will spread to other states just as previous phone use legislation did.

Cop using Textalyzer
Police officer using a prototype of a Textalyzer. (Photo: The New York Times)

Is a Textalyzer Legally Enforceable?

The Textalyzer, if it’s approved for use by law enforcement, won’t change existing discovery laws, it’ll just change how easily and quickly the information is accessed. Today, any driver involved in a crash faces the possibility that their phone records will be up for grabs during a criminal or civil investigation. However, it’s not easy to gain access: in New York, for example, law enforcement cannot access a driver’s phone without a warrant, even after an arrest, explains The New York Times. Investigations into phone records take time and resources, meaning they don’t happen very often now.

Anyone with a driver’s license has given their advanced consent to a Breathalyzer test, whether they know it or not. The same “implied consent” would hold for the Textalyzer, say lawmakers.

And privacy is of the utmost concern. “We’re facing the same hurdles we faced with drunk driving,” Matt Slater, the chief of staff for State Senator Terrence Murphy of New York, a Republican and a sponsor of the bill, told The New York Times. “We’re trying to make sure safety and civil liberties are equally protected.”

Texting and driving violations could face similar insurance-related consequences to drunk driving.

The Textalyzer and Insurance

If the Textalyzer becomes part of mainstream law enforcement’s arsenal, and cell phone use while driving is treated the same as drunk driving, it stands to reason that those caught using their phones in unauthorized ways will face consequences as steep as those caught under the influence of alcohol behind the wheel.

In most U.S. states, after a drunk driving conviction, a driver is classified as “high risk” and must have his auto insurance company file an SR-22 with the state on his behalf to meet the state’s requirement to reinstate his driver’s license. A driver needing an SR-22 filing often has to pay a fee for the document to be filed with the state, and many insurance companies do not offer an SR-22 at all.

If legislators pushing for the Textalyzer are already comparing phone use while driving to drinking and driving, violators of texting and driving laws could potentially soon face similar insurance-related consequences to drunk drivers.

distracted driving

Will The Textalyzer Go Far Enough?

Some believe the Textalyzer won’t go far enough to curb distracted driving. The onus would still be on drivers to stop using their mobile devices while driving, opined Sarah Doody in The New York Times. And for the Textalyzer to affect drivers, drivers will have to be caught in the act, or punished after a traffic incident or crash. So potentially millions of people using phones while driving could continue their recklessness without repercussions.

Possible Problems for the Textalyzer

What if a passenger uses the driver’s phone and then, in the event of a subsequent crash investigation, the driver is thought to have been illegally using her phone while operating the car? It seems there isn’t yet an easy answer for the question, but it stands to reason that in the event a driver claimed one of her passengers used her phone before a crash, an investigation would commence just as we see today with cases of disputed fault.

The Textalyzer: An Important Milestone in Road Safety

Even legal phone use is dangerous: can you talk on a wireless phone and read a book? Talk and truly concentrate on an intricate new recipe while cooking? Or even carry on a phone conversation while wrangling your kids without feeling frazzled and overwhelmed? Even if you think you can, you cannot, as we’ve shown. The Textalyzer would send an important message to drivers that phone use and driving are just as dangerous a mix as drinking and driving.