Although it is not yet ready for everyday use, lawmakers in several states are writing or considering legislation to allow law enforcement officers patrolling the highways to connect a device known as a “text­alyzer” to a mobile phone to instantly learn if the driver was texting prior to a crash.


Legislation was introduced in New York State that would make it mandatory  for a driver’s phone to be available to a police officer so they could check for any texting activity. The law is similar in scope, some suggest, to ones that require drivers to submit to a breathalyzer. Not blowing into the device can be grounds for arrest, citation or another punitive action. Other states, including New Jersey and Tennessee, are studying the textalyzer with an eye toward legislation.


The demonstration of a textalyzer device from Cellebrite for lawmakers in Albany, NY, last April was spurred by Ben Lieberman, whose 19-year-old son—sitting in the back seat of a car—was killed in a crash north of New York City in 2011.


The father complained that it was difficult for police to obtain phone records, which eventually showed that the driver of his son’s car was texting prior to the crash and had drifted into oncoming traffic.


In response, Lieberman founded Distracted Operators Risk Casualties and is working with Cellebrite to promote textalyzer legislation.


At the demonstration in Albany, a Cellebrite engineer told National Public Radio and other media that the technology still isn’t fully developed but would be tailored to what’s legal in each jurisdiction that approves its use.


He added that the textalyzer would only capture taps and swipes to determine if a driver was using the phone, that it would not download content, and that it would be able to tell if the driver was using a phone legally, such as with hands-free.


That said, the device faces legal and technological hurdles. (An official of Banner Public Affairs in Washington, DC, a public relations firm that represents Cellebrite, said that no one from the company was available to talk about the device with Fleet Owner.)


Professor Laurent Sacharoff—who teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence, cybercrime, and international crime at the University of Arkansas, and is an expert on the Fourth Amendment “Search and Seizure” law—said that the comparison to a breathalyzer doesn’t always ring true.  


He cites recent court rulings mandating that checking a person’s mobile phone by police is a greater invasion of privacy than a breathalyzer and should be held to stricter legal standards, making it more difficult for police to search a mobile phone without a strong reason to do so.


“Your phone has your entire life in it,” Sacharoff explained. “It’s a huge invasion of privacy.”


He suggests that laws allowing text­alyzers would most likely find their way to the Supreme Court.