The Chicago City Council, a subcommittee of which had recently held a hearing to discuss changing current to allow police to use a device known as a Textalyzer to confirm whether motorists were texting while driving before crashes, has taken further action on the issue. In a more recent meeting, the full Council approved a resolution calling on the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to testify whether its officers should be equipped with the Textalyzer.
Call for Police to Testify
On January 17, 2018, the Chicago City Council unanimously adopted a resolution to “Call for [the] Chicago Police Department to testify on [the] use of emerging technology in [the] enforcement of traffic laws and vehicle accident investigations.” The resolution came on the heels of a hearing that the Council’s Committee on Public Safety held a week earlier. The chief topic of conversation at that hearing was the potential use of a Textalyzer when investigating distracted driving cases. The device can reportedly extract information quickly out of cell phones.
In a statement before the City Council, 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke, a proponent of the Textalyzer, characterized distracted driving as a “plague.” 30th Ward Ald. Ariel Reboyras, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, agreed, claiming that as many as eleven teenagers die each day from using their cell phones while driving.
While the City Council’s new resolution seeking the CPD’s input on the use of the Textalyzer seemed to confirm its willingness to change current law to crack down on texting while driving, broad support for the issue in Chicago remains in question. Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, said that a three-question discussion with a police official during the earlier Public Safety Committee hearing already met the City Council’s demand for CPD feedback.
During the testimony referenced, which reportedly lasted less than four minutes, Eric Carter, CPD’s deputy chief of special functions, said little more than that he would relay the request for input back to the department, including its Office of Legal Counsel.
Textalyzer Is “Breathalyzer for Texting”
The Textalyzer has been characterized by its developer Cellebrite as a “Breathalyzer for texting.” Similar to that device, used by police when motorists are suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol, the Textalyzer would be deployed in cases where drivers are believed to have been texting while driving.
The Textalyzer, which is the size of a tablet computer, plugs into a cell phone and can pull up its data within 90 seconds. According to earlier testimony by Jody Wacker, Cellebrite’s vice president of marketing, the Textalyzer would only capture a cell phone’s metadata, not its actual data, meaning that an officer could see when certain texting activity occurred, but not the content of the messages or who received the texts. Therefore, she claimed, the device would not require the use of a warrant.
Privacy rights advocates have expressed more skepticism, including Ed Yohnka, the director of communications and public policy of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Illinois chapter, who also spoke at the Public Safety Committee hearing. Mr. Yohnka stated that “We are hopeful that the city will be mindful of privacy implications and possible privacy infringement as their analysis of Textalyzers moves forward.”
The Textalyzer is reportedly still in the prototype stage and has not yet been produced in large quantities. Ms. Wacker said the device would be built around the legal frameworks that exist in any given state or municipality if it were adopted by law enforcement.
Texting While Driving a Widespread Problem
Regardless of whether the Chicago City Council approves CPD’s use of the Textalyzer, recent studies suggest that distracted driving in general and texting while driving in particular are widespread problems in America today.
In one study, Allstate Insurance found that nearly half of all drivers (48.4%) polled admitted to texting while driving either “Sometimes,” “Frequently,” or “Always,” making it a significant factor in distracted driving.
Cambridge Mobile Telematics, which manufactures driving applications for auto insurance companies, found that distracted driving occurred during 52 percent of motor vehicle crashes. Moreover, their study found that nearly a quarter of drivers were using cell phones within a minute before their crashes occurred.
Distracted driving is classified as any activity that takes a driver’s hands off the steering wheel, eyes off the road, or mind off driving. Texting involves all three types of distractions, so it is among the worst forms of distracted driving. Distracted driving can make a motorist miss critical objects and events on the road or abandon control of the vehicle, which could potentially result in a serious crash.
Perhaps because of the frequency of distracted driving, the otherwise supportive 2nd Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins cast doubt on how effective the Textalyzer would be in curbing the problem.
Ald. Hopkins said that he did not believe the Textalyzer would be a significant deterrent and that there would need to be a cultural change in how distracted driving is viewed, though he added that they still “have to do everything [they] can to address this growing problem.”