New York Considers Legislation to Determine if Drivers in Accidents Used Their Cellphones (Opinion)

The legislation to allow police to use a “textalyzer” to determine whether drivers have been using their cellphones at the scene of a car accident has raised privacy concerns among some civil liberties groups.

by Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash. / April 20, 2016

(TNS) -- Texting while driving is more than a serious problem, it’s a deadly one.

State after state, including Washington and Oregon, have made it illegal to text while driving.

Yet, drivers continue to avert their eyes — and attention — from the roadway at 30 mph, 50 mph or more. It’s crazy. It must stop.

And maybe it will, or at least be significantly reduced, by new technology, if it is allowed to be used.

The state of New York is considering legislation to allow police to use a “textalyzer” to determine whether drivers have been using their cellphones at the scene of a car accident.

But the proposal has raised privacy concerns among some civil liberties groups.

While we strongly object to government intrusion into our lives, including snooping through the data on our electronic devices, this technology merely provides a tool to determine if drivers were texting when the accident occurred. This is not much different from laws allowing breathalyzer tests in similar circumstances when alcohol might have been involved.

“I have often heard there is no such thing as a breathalyzer for distracted driving — so we created one,” said Ben Lieberman, co-founder of an advocacy organization that promotes preventive legal action for texting-related car accidents. “Respecting drivers’ personal privacy, however, is also important, and we are taking meticulous steps to not violate those rights.”

The Washington Post reports the device is a scaled-back version of phone-scraping technology. The makers contend this version doesn’t give access to personal conversations or information. Instead, the textalyzer only determines if the phone was in use at the time of the accident.

If police want more information, the device or other technology could be used to dig deeper, but that would be prohibited by law. A search warrant would — and should — be required.

Sure, police could overstep their bounds and misuse the device. That can occur with any technology. And, if it did, that evidence would not be admissible in court like any other information obtained improperly.

Checks and balances must be in place to ensure this device will do what is intended, and only what is intended.

Ultimately, when drivers are granted the legal authority to operate a motor vehicle, they must agree to adhere to various laws — the rules of the road. They also agree to certain conditions, which include what information they must turn over to law enforcement officers.

Checking a cellphone at the scene of an accident to determine if texting occurred is reasonable.

And, perhaps, if drivers come to understand their phones will be checked if they are in a wreck, the behavior will be significantly reduced — and lives will be saved.

Editorials are the opinion of the Union-Bulletin's Editorial Board. The board is composed of Brian Hunt, Rick Doyle and Rick Eskil.

©2016 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.