The number of accidents caused by distracted drivers using cell phones is frighteningly high. Whether a driver is making a call or texting a friend, cell phones are dangerous tools of distraction in the car. Recent studies show that cell phone use makes drivers 4 times more likely to get into an accident.
A new bill in the New York Senate could change the way distracted drivers are caught and charged.
The “Textalyzer bill” would use a methodology similar to the Breathalyzer BAC test to check if cell phone use contributed to the accident. The bill would allow police officers to test phones after accidents and check for recent activity.
The bill would also bring the idea of “implied consent” to cell phone use while driving. Drivers who refuse to comply with the phone scans would lose their driver's licenses just as a driver refusing to take a breathalyzer would lose her license.
The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates that 20% of all car accidents in the United States, or one million crashes a year, are the result of a driver distractedly talking on a cell phone. 6% of crashes a year, or over 340,000 accidents, involve a driver using text messaging.
New York already has some of the strictest driving phone-related driving laws on the country. Cell phone activities that are prohibited while driving include:
- Talking on a handheld cell phone
- Composing, reading, or in any way accessing text messages while driving
- Viewing or taking pictures
- Playing games
Drivers in New York are allowed to use hands-free devices to talk on the phone, use GPS devices that are attached to the vehicle (affixed to the front window or dashboard), and use cell phones to call emergency responders.
Supporters of the bill hope that it will do more than correctly charge drivers who used cell phones in the car. Supporters hope that a Textalyzer tool, like the Breathalyzer, will bring awareness to the dangers that cell phones pose to drivers. A tool like this could also create more accurate statistics about the number of crashes involving cell phone use.
But there is no guarantee the bill is going to pass; it faces stiff opposition over its impact on privacy. Groups of politicians and citizens believe that the bill gives too much power to police to access personal information.
The stiffest opposition comes from the U.S. Supreme Court. A 2014 unanimous decision by the Supreme Court made it illegal for police to search cell phones without a warrant. Before the Textalyzer bill could be put into practice, legally required phone searches would have to be rectified with the Supreme Court ruling or the state risks unconstitutional activity from police.
Proponents of the bill argue that police would not have access to actual texts, emails, or pictures, and would only be able to see that recent activity occurred on the phone.
Currently, police already have the ability to access cell phone records by subpoenaing cell phone companies for activity that occurred at the time of a car accident.
The bill also faces controversy over its potential to blame the wrong person in an accident. Police would not be able to determine if a passenger had access to a driver's phone at the time of the crash.
Cellebrite, the company that recently helped the government unlock an iPhone under investigation, is currently developing the software for Textalyzer. The company says it is waiting for the bill to pass in order to better understand the tools Textalyzer would need. The bill is still “in committee” in the New York Senate.