Texting-while-driving tickets increasing in NY

08.25.14 | Bob Price

A statewide crusade against texting while driving spurred law enforcement agencies in the Southern Tier and across New York State to hand out record numbers of tickets last year for texting behind the wheel.

Broome, Steuben and Cayuga counties were among the 26 counties in the state where texting-while-driving tickets more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, according to data from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. Law enforcement officers in Broome County wrote 356 texting-related tickets last year, up from 168 in 2012. In Cayuga County, the 238 tickets given out in 2013 marked a 129 percent increase.

Local law enforcement agencies have attributed the jump in citations to distracted-driving-specific grants they've received from the state, part of a broader initiative aimed at quelling the practice.

The number of texting tickets issued in New York grew dramatically after the state changed texting and driving from a secondary offense to a primary one in 2011, giving law enforcement officials the power to pull drivers over simply for texting.

The penalties linked to the offense have since become harsher, with the number of points placed on an offender's license increasing from two when the ban was first introduced to five as of last year. A person's license can be suspended if he or she receives 11 points in an 18-month period.

Fines for texting and driving can be as much as $150 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and $400 each time beyond that within 18 months. Surcharges for the violations can be up to $93 extra, according to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles website.

"One of the things that has changed is the recognition by ... the public and the law enforcement community that we do need to pay attention to it, it is serious and we do need to enforce it," Tompkins County Sheriff Kenneth Lansing said. "It makes it so difficult sometimes just because it's a way of life, the cell phone, and so many people use it … But because of the serious accidents that have been caused by this, they start to realize ... it's a serious thing."

Around the Southern Tier, sheriff's offices in at least Broome, Chemung and Tompkins counties have used grant money to fund special texting-while-driving details, or task forces, where officers use unmarked cars to catch offenders. The details are often done in tag-team fashion — an officer in an unmarked "spotter" car watches for drivers who are on the phone and alerts a second officer waiting down the road when the vehicle is approaching.

The police spotter cars are generally SUVs that are higher off the ground, allowing officers to peer down and catch a person who might be texting with the phone in his or her lap.

"If you don't have those SUVs and unmarked cars, it's really hard to prove (that a driver was texting), especially if somebody denies it," Chemung County Sheriff Christopher J. Moss said.

In 2012, 66 percent of the texting tickets that were issued across New York led to convictions on the charge, and 21 percent were pleaded down, records analyzed by Gannett's Albany Bureau from the state Department of Motor Vehicles showed.

Capt. Fred Akshar of the Broome County Sheriff's Office said that whether or not a conviction is rendered is out of law enforcement officers' hands. Police can only give out tickets based on their observations and try to educate people on the inherent dangers associated with distracted driving, he said.

"Our hope ... is that just like seat belt use and driving while intoxicated, the more … you can put enforcement and education together about an issue, eventually — it may take a little while — but eventually, you will see a reduction in the numbers," Akshar said. "That's what law enforcement as a whole is hoping happens with this particular issue."

That combination of enforcement and education is often required in public safety campaigns to create a "deterrent effect," according to Dr. Kenneth Beck, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health who has studied traffic safety and distracted driving.

"The general research on a variety of enforcement campaigns, like drinking and driving and speeding, ... have shown that ... you can pass a law, but what really gets people's attention ... is when that law is enforced," Beck said. "To the extent that there is this real upswing in active and aggressive enforcement of the law (and that those enforcement campaigns are promoted), you will see, over time, a diminished number of people who are engaging in that behavior."

That effect may be behind what has been a decline in the number of tickets given out for talking on a cell phone in recent years. Those tickets still far exceed those given out for texting. But while texting tickets are on the rise, tickets for talking on cell phones are declining. Law enforcement gave out more than 207,000 tickets for cell phone use last year across the state compared to the more than 342,000 given out in 2009, when the number peaked.

Moss, the Chemung County sheriff, said the sheer number of tickets that have been given out for talking on the phone while driving has likely helped to get across the message and discourage people from breaking the law.

Because enforcing texting laws is generally more difficult, law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups tend to rely more heavily on the education and promotion components.

Mike Kellenyi, founder of People Against Distracted Driving (PADD), said things like road signs that remind drivers not to text can be critical.

A law passed in New Jersey last year requiring "appropriate signage" to warn the traveling public about the dangers of distracted driving was named after Kellenyi's daughter, Nikki. The 18-year-old was killed in a car crash in Washington Township, New Jersey, in 2012.

Mike Kellenyi suspects the driver of the car Nikki was in was distracted, but the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office determined it was inconclusive whether the young woman had been texting or talking on a cell phone when the car she was driving collided with a pickup truck. The driver of the car pleaded guilty to failure to stop or yield right of way.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last year that close to 300 signs would go up along major highways around the state notifying drivers of upcoming "texting zones" where they can safely pull over and use their phone. Many of the signs bear the message, "It can wait."

Kellenyi and PADD are now working on getting signs up around schools to remind teens to put the cell phones away while driving.

"Everybody (who texts and drives) thinks they can get away with it," Kellenyi said. "But ... they're just getting lucky."