Over the last seven years, most states, including Louisiana, have banned texting by drivers, and public service campaigns have tried an array of tactics — “It can wait” among them — to persuade people to put down their phones when they are behind the wheel.
Yet the problem, by just about any measure, appears to be getting worse. Americans confess in surveys that they are still texting while driving, as well as using Facebook and Snapchat and taking selfies. Road fatalities, which had fallen for years, are now rising sharply, up roughly 8 percent in 2015 over the previous year, according to preliminary estimates.
So to try to change a distinctly modern behavior, legislators and public health experts are reaching back to an old strategy: They want to treat distracted driving like drunken driving.
The most provocative idea, from lawmakers in New York, is to give police officers a new device that is the digital equivalent of the Breathalyzer — a roadside test called the Textalyzer. It would work like this: An officer arriving at the scene of a crash could ask for the phones of any drivers involved and use the Textalyzer to tap into the operating system to check for recent activity. The technology could determine whether a driver had used the phone to text, email or do anything else that is forbidden under New York’s hands-free driving laws, which prohibit drivers from holding phones to their ear. Failure to hand over a phone could lead to the suspension of a driver’s license, similar to the consequences for refusing a Breathalyzer.
The campaign, though still in development, has already garnered support from YouTube, which has agreed to recruit stars on the website to create original content involving the message. Its proponents admit that the Textalyzer raises potential privacy concerns. Now, the police can obtain a warrant for cellphone records, but the process takes time and resources, limiting the likelihood of investigation.
But those protections are there for good reason, according to privacy advocates, who oppose the New York bill. A unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that the police could not search a cellphone without a warrant, even after an arrest, suggesting an uphill fight on the New York legislation.
The bill’s authors say they have based the Textalyzer concept on the same “implied consent” legal theory that allows the police to use the Breathalyzer: When drivers obtain a license, they are consenting in advance to a Breathalyzer, or else they will risk the suspension of their license.
The Textalyzer legislation has been called Evan’s Law for Evan Lieberman, who was asleep in the back of a car when the vehicle, driven by a friend, lost control. Mr. Lieberman, 19, died from his injuries, and his father, Ben Lieberman, spent months trying to gain access to phone records, which ultimately showed that the driver had been texting. Ben became an advocate for driving safety; and in December 2015, looking to develop the Textalyzer concept, he approached the mobile forensics company Cellebrite, which was recently involved in helping the government find a way into a locked iPhone. Jim Grady, the chief executive of Cellebrite U.S.A., said that the Textalyzer software had not been fully built because it was not clear what a final law might require, but that it would not be too technologically challenging.