'Textalyzer' Technology Takes Aim at Distracted Drivers

PHOTO: New technology may potentially tell when a driver is texting from behind the wheel.Getty Images
New technology may potentially tell when a driver is texting from behind the wheel.

The breathalyzer could be getting a companion in the future: the textalyzer, a device that could check to see if a driver's phone was in use in the moments prior to or during a car accident.

A bill sponsored by New York State Sen. Terrence Murphy calls for a textalyzer technology to be used in the field after a collision. The proposal is for a technology that would be able to see if a driver was distracted by their phone, without providing access to photos, messages, contacts and other private data. If a driver doesn't comply, he or she could risk losing their license, according to the proposal.

"Empowering our law enforcement with technology, which is able to immediately determine cell phone usage without an inquiry into the content will allow enforcement of these laws after an accident while still protecting essential privacy rights," Murphy's bill reads.

Under the bill's current language, a driver would give "implied consent" for field testing of their phone to be conducted by a police officer "at or near the time of the accident or collision, which provides the grounds for such testing. No such electronic scan shall include the content or origin of any communication, game conducted, image or electronic data viewed on a mobile telephone or a portable electronic device."

Israeli firm Cellebrite says it already has technology that allows it to check the recent activity of many smartphones. Jim Grady, the company's CEO, said in a statement that Cellebrite is developing a tool for officers to detect smartphone usage while still protecting the privacy of the user.

The group Distracted Operators Risk Casualties worked with lawmakers on the bill. Co-founder Ben Lieberman's son Evan was killed in 2011 in a crash with a distracted driver. The law has been named "Evan's Law" in his honor.

"The last thing we want to do is infringe on anyone’s privacy," Lieberman told ABC News today. "We understand there is a problem but it is not being addressed at the scene of the collision. People are going to be amazed at how much this affects us. You're impaired to the level of drunk driving."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the average text takes a user's eyes off the road for long enough to travel the length of a football field at highway speeds. More than eight people are killed every day in the United States and 1,161 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the CDC.