Toronto lawyer pushing province to bring in ‘textalyzers’ to catch texting drivers

A Toronto lawyer and prominent road safety advocate is pushing the province to implement a controversial proposed technology that would allow police to test cellphones at the side of the road to see if drivers are using them behind the wheel.

It’s been dubbed the “textalyzer,” and it’s a device at the centre of a debate in several U.S. cities. Privacy concerns have divided its proponents and detractors — but Patrick Brown, a founding member of the Coalition for Vulnerable Road User Laws, says it’s something the city needs.

“We literally are running into a crisis proportion of pedestrians getting hit, struck, killed and hurt,” Brown told CBC News.

“We don’t always have to be last in safety.”

The technology would allow police officers to plug a driver’s phone into a device that would analyze if it was being used in a car, and what kind of activity was happening when, according to developer Cellebrite.

“If a driver was using the hands-free option to talk via their mobile phone, the textalyzer would also be able to determine that,” the company said in a blog post.

“Much like the breathalyzer, from which the device received its name, its two prime-use cases are for situations where either there is a suspicion of distracted driving or at the scene of an accident.”

Brown says he met with Ontario Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney about a month ago to talk about vulnerable road user laws, and raised the issue with her then.

The province says in a statement that it is continuing to monitor the effectiveness of Ontario’s distracted driving laws, new research and what’s happening in other jurisdictions.

“Any new or enhanced enforcement tools are reviewed as a part of this ongoing monitoring and evaluation process,” the statement reads. Toronto police would not say if the device would be a help in investigations, and instead referred questions to the province.

Privacy worries

Ministry officials say they are not currently aware of any textalyzer devices that are ready to use in Ontario — and any new tools would have to be reviewed with law enforcement and other ministries.

“Such a review would include addressing any privacy concerns, as many individuals store personal information in cellphones,” the statement reads.

That’s exactly what’s worrying Ann Cavoukian, executive director of the Global Privacy and Security by Design Centre.

“[Phones contain] everything that’s going on in your life,” she said. “Cellebrite breaks into all kinds of encrypted communications. If you want to break into something, you go to them. That’s why this makes me nervous.”

Cavoukian says she would want to see an independent, third-party audit to verify that Cellebrite can’t access any personal information before even considering implementation of technology like this.

Privacy concerns have dogged debates about the technology, especially since it could be used at crash sites without a warrant. It has been examined in places like New York, Nevada and Chicago.

Jessica Spieker, spokesperson for Friends and Family for Safe Streets, outright dismisses the privacy argument.

“It’s total garbage,” she said. “It’s no more invasive than a breathalyzer, and we’ve come to accept breathalyzers as a due matter of course when impaired driving is suspected.

“All it tells you is if you’re distracted by your phone or not.”

 ‘Like a bomb was detonated in my life’

Spieker has a vested interest in the idea. She was T-boned by an SUV back in 2015 while riding her bike to work on Bathurst Street, just north of Eglinton Avenue West.

The 35-year-old personal trainer broke the base of her spine in the crash, and suffered a litany of other serious injuries. Years later, she’s still feeling the effects.

“It’s like a bomb was detonated in my life,” she said

Spieker says she can’t help but wonder if the driver who hit her was on her phone, considering she had the right of way on a normal, bright morning. Without a reason for what happened, closure is elusive, she says.

“Nobody knows why, and she’s not telling anybody why she didn’t see me,” she said.

“I would really like to know why this was inflicted on me.”


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