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Cuomo Orders Study Of 'Textalyzer' Device; Would Tell Police If Drivers In Crashes Were On Phones

ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New York state is set to study the use of a device known as the "textalyzer" that would allow police to determine whether a motorist involved in a serious crash was texting while driving.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that he would direct the Governor's Traffic Safety Committee to examine the technology, as well as the privacy and constitutional questions it could raise.

"Despite laws to ban cellphone use while driving, some motorists still continue to insist on texting behind the wheel — placing themselves and others at substantial risk," Cuomo said in a statement. "This review will examine the effectiveness of using this new emerging technology to crack down on this reckless behavior and thoroughly evaluate its implications to ensure we protect the safety and privacy of New Yorkers."

The device is called the "textalyzer" because of its similarity to the Breathalyzer, which is used to identify drunk drivers. It would allow police to see if a motorist had been texting, emailing or otherwise using his or her cellphone before a serious crash.

The "textalyzer" is still some months away from being ready, according to Cellebrite, the Israel-based tech company developing the device.

Privacy and civil liberties groups already have questioned whether the technology's use would violate personal privacy, noting that police often must obtain search warrants before looking at a person's phone.

Civil libertarian Susan Gottehrer told CBS2's Marc Liverman that automatically handing over your phone to police violates due process, especially since state lawmakers have approved a stiff penalty for anyone who refuses to comply.

"To demand a cellphone at a time of accident further victimizes people who have already been traumatized," she said. "If they say they can't or they won't, they can have their license suspended."

Cellebrite says the device would not access the content of calls or texts.

Suffolk County resident Amy Gross was not convinced.

"Now they're scanning your phone where they really shouldn't have the right to do that," she said. "It's your personal property."

Claudette Banovich wondered if the technology will recognize drivers like herself who use hands-free voice-activated phone calls and texts.

"If I'm in the middle of talking on the phone and I get into an accident, how are they going to know if I was connected to my Bluetooth versus actually holding the phone?" she asked.

But a mother of two young boys said drastic measures are needed, because of the rise in distracted driving accidents.

"You can go off the road if you're not paying attention and you're looking at the phone. You could hit someone with kids in the car," said Candace Pope.

The committee will hear from supporters and opponents of the technology, law enforcement officials and legal experts before issuing a report, Cuomo's office said. Particular areas of focus will include the effectiveness of the technology, constitutional and legal issues as well as how the device would be used in practice.

"We were the first state to adopt a motorcycle helmet law, a seat belt law for front-seat passengers and a cell-phone law," said Terri Egan, executive deputy commissioner of the state's Department of Motor Vehicles, who is the acting leader of the committee. "We want to make sure we consider all the impacts of the technology carefully to best ensure public safety and effective enforcement of the law."

Twelve people were killed and 2,784 were injured in cellphone-related crashes in New York state from 2011-2015, according to figures from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research. State statistics show 1.2 million tickets for cellphone violations were issued in that same time period.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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