Textalyzer: NY distracted driving law advances

Evan’s Law would require drivers to give police their cell phones and enable officers to use textalyzer technology at auto accident scenes

By Andrea Fox, P1 Contributor

NEW YORK — Assembly Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz, who introduced a proposed New York state law in 2016 that would enable law enforcement officers at the scene of an auto accident to use a device to determine when a driver's smartphone was last used, said authorizing police use of textalyzer technology is as important as the breathalyzer has been to reducing drunk driving deaths.

Proponents of the legislation, dubbed Evan's Law, are emboldened by new data and studies that show increased smartphone use while driving has a direct correlation to 2016 being the deadliest year for motor vehicle accidents in nine years. Last year more than 40,000 Americans died in automobile accidents -- an increase of 6 percent over 2015 and a 14 percent increase over 2014, according to the National Safety Council.

The New York Senate version of the bill has advanced out of its transportation committee and moved forward to the finance committee on March 21st, while the New York Assembly legislation is in the transportation committee.

A recent University of Pennsylvania study found that in-car breathalyzers for previous drunk-driving offenders have curbed drunk-driving deaths by 15 percent. Proponents say the textalyzer technology could do the same thing for deaths caused by distracted driving --  while the proposed law ensures privacy.

Supportive Studies

According to data reviewed by the Alliance Combating Distracted Driving (ACDD), the increased 2016 fatalities happened despite continued reductions in drunk driving and increased use of seat belts. ACDD said that despite a 3.3 percent increase of the number of drivers on the road, an 18-year declining trend in crashes per vehicle miles traveled (VMT) should have continued.

This study looked at the relationship between yearly crashes and VMT since 1994, and found that new crash causes emerged in 2012, which they attribute to an increase in cellphone ownership:

"The introduction and dependence of smartphones trend is more in aligned with this spike than any other factor. Distracted driving information at crashes remains almost nonexistent so its impossible to pinpoint the exact cause. We can determine that the rate increase is more profound than can be explained by a more populated roadway," according to ACDD.

A new 90-day study by Zendrive, whose technology supports a General Motors and Life360 Driver Protect application that accesses smartphones to detect and illicit faster response to auto accidents and is racking up data on millions of miles driven for future use by insurance carriers, supports the claim that drivers distracted by smartphones are causing more accidents.

Zendrive calculated that drivers are handling their cell phones 88 percent of the time.

For its study, Zendrive tracked anonymized data from 3.1 million of its 5 million users, according to the executive summary. The company calculated the ratio between the average daily trip time and the average amount of time drivers used their phones. The rate is based on results showing cellphone use in 88 out of every 100 trips, which totaled 600 million trips with phone use in the United States during the study.

"By comparing duration to duration, i.e. apples to apples, Zendrive came up with the most direct and accurate measurement of driver distraction," according to the summary, which also noted that Vermont had the highest level of driver phone use, and Oregon had the lowest.

A 2015 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that potentially unsafe levels of mental distraction occur even if drivers eyes are on the road and hands are on the wheel. Distracted driving could last as long as 15 to 27 seconds after completing a voice-activated, hands-free task, which analyzed a range of the easiest to the most complex tasks in commercially available, voice-activated systems.

Textalyzer Technology

Ben Lieberman co-founder of Distracted Operators Risk Casualties, whose son died as a result of terminal injuries sustained in an automobile accident where the driver's cellphone logs his family subpoenaed revealed texting throughout the trip, said police could not investigate the driver's phone in the 2011 crash due to privacy.

The result is a "nameless and faceless crime," Lieberman said.

James Grady, chief executive officer of Cellebrite, told Gov1 in a recent press call that the textalyzer technology could be brought to market within six to nine months of a distracted driver law passing.

The Israeli company already works with law enforcement throughout the United States on mobile data forensics. In a proof of concept, Grady said Cellebrite demonstrated that the company's existing mobile data forensics technology could be modified. While ensuring privacy, a textalyzer device would give officers the ability to determine -- within 90 seconds -- if a smartphone's applications had been used -- but without revealing or reporting on any of the material content.

Privacy Exchange

"We have to fight through some bad information," Lieberman said, noting that publications like the Washington Post and others frequently use the same erroneous quotes, such as:

"The technology may in fact be scanning through the content of people’s phones and collecting data, even if that is not apparent," which is a statement by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Lieberman said statements like these about the textalyzer prototype developed are absolutely not accurate.

Additional Resources

Access a National Safety Council Cell Phone Policy Kit for Employers.

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