Bill could allow officers to test for texting and driving

Bill could allow officers to test for texting and driving
Published: Feb. 4, 2017 at 2:30 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 4, 2017 at 6:50 AM CST
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NASHVILLE, TN (WMC / WSMV) - Texting and driving is a dangerous and sometimes deadly distraction that is oftentimes hard for officers to prove. Currently, they can't ask to see a driver's phone if they suspect distracted driving.

"You may ask, 'Were you on the phone? Why is this behavior happening?'" said Lt. Michael Gilliland, commander of the traffic section of Metro police. "'No, I wasn't doing anything. I wasn't doing that.' Well now it becomes their word against the police officer's word."

This makes texting and driving hard to prove in court. Officers oftentimes charge drivers with "due care" violations instead. That citation encompasses a wider range of distracted driving offenses.

In 2016, Tennessee Highway Patrol issued 13,549 citations for texting and driving; 125 of those came from drivers in Davidson County.

This year, troopers have already issued 849 distracted driving citations for texting and due care violations.

What if officers could check a distracted driver's phone for text messages just like they ask a suspected drunk driver to perform a breathalyzer? A new bill being drafted in the legislature is aiming to make that happen.

"The officer would ask to see the cell phone just like they would ask you to do a breathalyzer. The driver could comply or not comply," said Matt Anderson, the press secretary for the Tennessee General Assembly's Senate Democratic Caucus.

The device officers would use is called a "textalyzer." An officer could plug the device in to a driver's cell phone to see if the person was texting before a crash.

"This will work after a serious crash where there has been serious bodily harm," Anderson said. "The officer makes the determination that there is probable cause that this crash was a result of distracted driving, and in those cases they would check the cell phone."

One obstacle would be proving there's probable cause and that the search is constitutional.

The Supreme Court says officers need a warrant to search a phone. But this bill could closely mirror the laws that make breathalyzers legal.

"There's all sorts of reasons an officer might have probable cause. We'll hammer those details out in committee," Anderson said.

Anderson notes one benefit is privacy should not be compromised, as officers cannot read the content of the messages. The app would only allow officers to see that a message has been sent.

The textalyzer bill has already gained traction in the New York General Assembly. The sponsor, State Senator Lee Harris, hopes it will here too.

His office released a statement that reads in part:

"Texting while driving in dangerous and illegal. And yet, Tennessee drivers continue to text. The device in our bill only detects if the driver was texting - it does not detect the content of the text message. We wanted to propose something to aide law enforcement."

The last day to file bills this legislative session is Feb. 9.

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