“Textalyzer” Brings Hope of Distracted Driving Detector After Crashes

Officers investigating drunk driving accidents have a device at their disposal called breathalyzers, which help them detect a person’s breath-alcohol concentration. Blood-alcohol concentration can also be detected through a blood test, though they may have to get a warrant for that. In cases where a driver is suspected of driving impaired by drugs, many departments have trained drug recognition experts (DRE’s) who can help ascertain this. But what if the driver was suspected of texting? 

It’s a common scenario, given that more than eight people die every single day in the U.S. as a result of distracted driving. Another 1,000 people are injured. In fact, it’s believed to be at least part of the catalyst for why we’re seeing rising car accident statistics in the U.S. for the first time in a decade. But “testing” for driver distraction can be tricky. Even when it involves a smartphone, calculating a person’s use and tying that with the exact second of an accident can prove challenging.

Enter the Textalyzer. It’s a device that may allow on-scene officers to test the devices of drivers involved to check for recent activity. The technology would be able to show whether the driver was texting, email or engaging in any other electronic communication that is barred under F.S. 316.305, Florida’s distracted driving law. This could prove important not just in proving the cause of a crash, but also in cases where plaintiffs may want to make an argument for punitive damages due to gross negligence. 

According to a recent feature by CNN, the technology is partially the brain child of a New York man who tragically lost his college freshman son in a car accident several years ago. His son had been in the back seat, wearing his seat belt, sleeping. He was on his way to work. His friend, who was behind the wheel, insisted he’d fallen asleep at the wheel. But decedent’s father had doubts, given that it was rush hour, the road was busy and windy. It didn’t seem like the sort of environment one could doze off. He began pushing for the driver’s phone records. The phone had been sitting in the vehicle in the junkyard for weeks after the crash. Police never bothered to check it. When the records were finally returned, the father learned the driver had been texting throughout the drive – and in the minutes before the crash. There was no way to know for certain if he was texting at the exact moment of the crash.

As it turned out, police had no protocol – even after a fatal auto accident – for how to test to see if someone was texting at the time of a crash. Usually, officers are left to rely on witness statements. Requesting phone records through the courts is a lengthy and expensive process, and even then, it only results in detection of calls and texts – not internet activity.

The textalyzer would change that, allowing for on-scene analysis. Decedent’s father reached out to a forensics company to help create the technology.

There is some concern that the devices might give law enforcement reason to seize cell phones without any concrete justification for doing so. But those who are advocating its use say the difference is about use over content. The question is not, “What were you doing? Who were you texting with? What were you saying?” It’s about, “Were you sending and receiving text messages while driving?”

Those who are pushing for its introduction in states across the country say that while it won’t single-handedly slash distracted driving crashes, it would help investigators, increase awareness and perhaps raise the stakes.

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Additional Resources:

Driving While Distracted: Is the Textalyzer the new Breathalyzer? Sept. 2, 2016, By Kelly Wallace, CNN