It’s technology vs technology with New York driver’s rights caught in the middle

Texting while driving is one of the main causes of modern road accidents, and the state of New York wants to put a stop to it. Period. The Textalyzer is a controversial device which is intended to increase police powers and public safety. What will it mean for driver’s rights and insurance rates?

If you think Textalyzer sounds like Breathalyzer, you’d be right. Just as a Breathalyzer determines if you’ve been a little too active at the bar prior to an accident, Textalyzers are designed to tell if your phone was in use directly prior to a collision.

Albany took the first steps into these hazardous legal waters in January by submitting a proposal to the New York State Senate. The tech is still stuck at the proposal stage. For now. This doesn’t change the fact that in our cell phone-centric culture, it might only be a matter of time before a device like this becomes law and impacts drivers and insurance.

Why does this seem like such a good idea?

Textalyzer technology is the brainchild of Cellebrite, an overseas company based in Israel and specializing in digital intelligence for law enforcement among other sectors. They present their technology as being in the best interests of public safety; an empowering tool for police officers and prosecutors to get to the truth behind an incident.

The device isn’t only limited to checking your texts. Your emails, online browsing, and latest selfie could all be used against you if they’re carried out behind the wheel. The Textalyzer was proposed as a solution in 2016 and given serious consideration since July 2017. Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee to study the tech, as well as any legal or constitutional problems its implementation may pose.

Deploying the Textalyzer seems, at first glance, seems like a move that would be universally lauded, especially in the face of national and NY state statistics. Distracted driving kills 9 people and injures over a thousand in crashes that are reported in America every day.

1.2 million tickets were issued to drivers for cell phone violations in NY state between 2011 and 2015, according to mounting data from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research. Studies in our state also revealed cell phone use more than triples the risk of an auto accident. The same data found cell phone use while driving was at the root of an alarming 52% of all crashes.

These figures are doubly concerning given that New York has enacted a hand-held device and texting ban while driving since 2009. There’s no argument that this is a serious problem. Something needs to be done. The conflict lies in exactly the right way to do it.

The controversy behind the issue

The Textalyzer has ignited the perennial debate between order and freedom: you can’t increase one without compromising the other. The initial proposal in the New York State Senate sought to grant police officers the right to demand access to a driver’s cell phone following an accident. Refusal to comply would mean automatic suspension of their license … and none of this would require a warrant.

The potential loss doesn’t stop there. Opponents of this sort of technology see it as unconstitutional and a violation of personal privacy and digital rights. As the law stands in many states, a driver can’t be pulled over for texting. An officer must have a primary reason to do so before citing the phone as a secondary offense. This was the case for New Yorkers until 2011 when it was elevated to a primary reason.

Civil rights proponents say that the Textalyzer’s positives aren’t worth the price we’d pay in personal freedom. The fact that the Textalyzer would be a warrantless search is ringing alarm bells. Those against it say there are currently ample ways for reckless drivers to be prosecuted. Potential government exploitation of private data and police bias are two major criticisms standing in the proposal’s way.

Those against the tech do have a point. The question must also be asked: What could we gain?

The potential effects on insurance

The hope with any safety legislation is that it will make drivers more careful. The existence of a Textalyzer or similar device could certainly stop some drivers from texting while on the road. The secondary effect for auto insurance could then be positive. More attentive drivers mean safer roads and fewer accidents, all of which spell lower premiums.

How long might it take for this kind of legislation to make a difference? Predicting the effects of emerging technology is rarely an exact science, but we could consider the wider potential of the Textalyzer by looking at the past. The Breathalyzer itself appeared in its most commonly-understood form in 1954. Did that make a significant impact on how drivers behaved?

Not for around a decade, according to the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine. The U.S. didn’t see a big downturn in DUI-related auto incidents until the early 1980’s. This data does state, however, that a big issue facing the early Breathalyzer was a lack of public awareness of the seriousness of the issue.

That’s not a problem the modern driver faces. The Internet and social media can trend a matter globally in minutes, and a proliferation of news and TV channels can communicate the gravity of distracted driving just as effectively. That’s the kind of awareness that leads to increased responsibility, which is the hallmark of a considerate (and more insurance-friendly) driver.

It’s also the best of all possible outcomes. It’s equally possible that drivers will continue to be reckless and consider a quick text at the wheel to be no big deal. It remains to be seen just how this emerging technology will impact New York’s drivers – and at NICRIS, we’ll be paying attention.

NICRIS Insurance is focused on providing each client with the appropriate suite of products that will protect them, their interests, and their loved ones. If you need some advice about auto or home insurance, we’d be happy to help. Call us at (516) 544-0006 or visit our contact page to get in touch.