By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
I don’t know about you, but to me the word ‘Textalyzer’ conjures up intimidating images of Arnold Schwarzenegger at his menacing best in ‘The Terminator’.
In New York, road safety authorities are hoping that drivers who text will feel the same way.
The Textalyzer is one of several solutions being proposed to address the increasing problem of drivers distracted by mobile phones.
In the US, road fatalities have risen sharply in the past two years, up by more than 8%. While experts say this is partly due to more people on the roads, the use of mobile phones while driving is also believed to be contributing to the numbers.
Like Australia, most of the United States has banned texting while driving. Fourteen states prohibit the use of hand-held devices by drivers, and 46 states ban texting, with penalties ranging from a $25 fine in South Carolina to $200 elsewhere, and even the loss of points.
A handful of states have strengthened their original bans, including New York, which in 2014 adopted tougher sanctions that include licence suspensions.
There have been various public service campaigns such as ‘It Can Wait’, as well as technological assistance such as a free app which silences incoming messages and generates an automatic response saying that you are driving and can’t respond right now.
But the problem continues. In surveys, many Americans still confess to texting while driving, as well as using Facebook and Snapchat and taking selfies.
So, in order to change this distinctly modern behaviour, legislators, public health experts and concerned lobby groups are looking back over old strategies, particularly those used to address drink driving.
The founders of US group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, recently founded a new group Partnership for Distraction-Free Driving, which is petitioning social media companies like Facebook to step up to their corporate responsibilities and play a major role in discouraging multitasking by drivers, in much the same way liquor outlets were encouraged to help fight against drink driving.
But perhaps the most radical idea to come out of the discussions has been from lawmakers in New York.
The Textalyzer is the digital equivalent of a Breathalyzer, and it would give police the same powers they have when using Breathalysers.
For example, an officer arriving at the scene of a crash, or conducting random roadside tests, could ask drivers for their phones and plug them into the Textalyzer to check for recent activity.
The technology would determine whether a driver had used the phone to text, email or anything else illegal under New York’s driving laws, regardless of whether call or text records are deleted. Failure to relinquish a phone could attract an automatic fine, loss of points or even a suspension from driving.
However, the legislation required to implement the initiative is facing hurdles over privacy concerns, specifically a unanimous decision by the US Supreme Court in 2014 which ruled that police cannot search a cell phone without a warrant, even after an arrest.
Even though the Textalyzer would be able to determine phone activity, it would not give police access to the contents of emails, texts or social media posts. An obvious problem with the technology is, how would police know if you were driving while using your phone rather than pulled over at the side of the road, or that a passenger wasn’t making the calls or texts? This is where anything you say to police could become highly relevant.
In any event, if New York were to successfully pass the Textalyzer, there’s a good chance it would be introduced nationally.
Road safety authorities around the world are currently grappling with the issue of texting and driving, and all potential solutions need to be brought to the table.
Closer to Home
Australia does not have the same level of privacy protections as the US; indeed, our State and Federal parliaments regularly pass laws right under our noses which severely interfere with our civil liberties, without political or legal ramifications.
Our meta data retention laws are a prime example of this. The laws require phone and internet service providers (ISPs) to retain the meta data of all subscribers and make it available to a range of government agencies upon request, without them even having to obtain a warrant. The laws are the most far-reaching and intrusive of any developed country.
Given the NSW government’s lack of respect for civil liberties, and the eagerness of police and politicians to gain as much control over (and revenue from) individuals as possible, it certainly foreseeable they might consider introducing technologies like the Textalyser in another scheme marketed as a ‘road safety initiative’.