New York pushes for law to give police the power to scan driver mobile devices

Is the "textalyzer" a bid to improve road safety or just another erosion of personal privacy?

New York legislators have proposed a new road safety bill which will grant police officers the power to scan driver text messages after a collision takes place.

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Charlie Osborne | ZDNet

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), texting while driving is six times more dangerous than drunk driving. However, despite these risks, the agency says 67 percent of drivers on US roads still reach for their handsets while behind the wheel, potentially leading to collisions that could otherwise have been avoided.

As reported by Motherboard, a new road safety bill hopes to reduce these rates by deterring drivers from reaching for gadgets which could distract them.

The proposed road safety bill for the New York area would grant police powers to use new technology to scan mobile devices and check up on whether drivers involved in collisions were communicating at the time of an accident -- leading potentially to distracted driving charges and potential liability for crashes.

The bill has been dubbed "Evan's Law" in memory of 19-year-old Evan Lieberman, who was killed in 2011 by a distracted driver.

The student's father, Ben Lieberman, is an advocate of the changes and founder of the Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs) group.

"The general public knows distracted driving is a problem, but if people knew the extent of the damage caused by this behavior, they would be amazed," said Lieberman. "With our current laws, we're not getting accurate information because the issue is not being addressed at the heart of the problem -- with the people causing the collisions."

Under the new rules, all drivers in the state would be forced to hand over their mobile devices after a crash. If they refuse, their licenses will be immediately revoked.

The "textalyzer" technology has been compared to the breathalyzer, which is used to ascertain whether drivers involved in crashes have consumed alcohol and whether they are over the legal limit.

Cellebrite, the Israeli cybersecurity firm which was recently linked -- without much evidence -- to the FBI in the San Bernardino shooter iPhone unlocking case is on board to develop the device.

However, the company refused to reveal any details to the publication concerning how the technology would work, and how snooping on messages, contacts, emails and other content would be avoided through the scan.

Both Lieberman and Cellebrite are quick to emphasize that driver rights to privacy will be protected. According to Lieberman, "they are taking meticulous steps to not violate those rights."

The activist said in a press release that distracted drivers should be held just as accountable as drunk drivers if they choose to indulge in behaviors which could cause accident, injury, or fatalities on the road. Lieberman commented:

"When people were held accountable for drunk driving, that's when positive change occurred. It's time to recognize that distracted driving is a similar impairment, and should be dealt with in a similar fashion. This is a way to address people who are causing damage."

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