Can the ‘Textalyzer’ Stop New Yorkers From Texting and Driving?

The device would allow police to check if phone usage could be to blame for a car crash, but critics have raised privacy concerns

Once the tablet-like tool is plugged into an individual’s cellphone, it can detect if the device was in use before a crash. U.S. Air Force / Sadie Colbert

In the 1950s and ‘60s, about 50 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities could be pinned on drunk driving. Today, that number is closer to 30 percent. The decline is in large part because of the breathalyzer, which authorities have used to catch drunk drivers since its invention in 1954. Now, officials are battling a new form of distracted driving: cellphone use. And they are hoping to replicate the success of the breathalyzer with the introduction of the “textalyzer,” a gadget that can test if a cellphone was in use in the moments leading up to an accident.

As David Klepper of the Associated Press reports, New York may become the first state to put the textalyzer to use. Last Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee to evaluate the technology and any constitutional or legal issues arising from its implementation.

"Despite laws to ban cell phone use while driving, some motorists still continue to insist on texting behind the wheel—placing themselves and others at substantial risk," Cuomo says in a press release. "This review will examine the effectiveness of using this new emerging technology to crack down on this reckless behavior and thoroughly evaluate its implications to ensure we protect the safety and privacy of New Yorkers."

According to the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, 12 individuals were killed and 2,784 injured in cellphone-related crashes in the state of New York between 2011 and 2015. During that same period, 1.2 million tickets were issued for cell phone violations.

On a national scale, cell phone usage proves equally fatal. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2015, 3,477 individuals were killed and 391,00 injured in crashes involving distracted drivers.

The textalyzer, which was created by the Israel-based tech company Cellebrite, is a tablet-like tool that is designed to be plugged into an individual's cell phone and can detect if the device was in use before a crash, according to the Associated Press. The textalyzer shows authorities a breakdown of recently opened apps, screen taps and swipes: If a user just sent a text, the device will note the message’s source, time stamp and outgoing direction, David Schaper reports for NPRThe gadget is currently in development and will not be ready for several months.​

Digital privacy groups have raised concerns about the textalyzer’s potential for information exploitation, but supporters argue that police will not be able to view personal photographs or read emails and text messages; the textalyzer will only show usage, and if the phone is locked, officers will need the owner to input their password before accessing data.

In an interview with NBC News’ Elizabeth Chuck, Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said these precautions are not enough to guarantee “that the officer won’t be looking at or copying all kinds of personal data about you.” Another civil liberties expert, Professor Neil Richards of Washington University in St. Louis, added that authorities can already gain access to information on phone usage without such gadgets by filing a warrant for the suspect’s cellphone records.

One of the textalyzer’s most ardent supporters is Ben Lieberman, a resident of New Castle, New York. In 2011, his 19-year-old son died in a car crash, and Lieberman eventually learned that the driver of the other car had been texting while driving.

Lieberman tells NBC that phone records alone do not provide enough information. “Anything internet-related doesn’t show up on a phone record,” he said, citing activities like checking Facebook and taking selfies. “That’s like giving a Breathalyzer that just detects beer.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.