The approaching holiday season brings with it the busiest travel time of the year on our roads. As Westchester County’s chief law enforcement officer, I am concerned with all aspects of public safety, including safe driving, and I would like to focus drivers, especially young drivers and their parents, on safety issues and changes in the law with respect to driving while using cell phones and other hand-held portable electronic devices.
It is illegal in New York State for a driver to use a hand-held portable electronic device while driving. The new law allows a police officer to stop a vehicle whose driver is using a hand-held portable electronic device and issue the driver a ticket. Under the old law, an officer could only stop a vehicle and issue a ticket to the driver for using the cell phone or other device if the driver had first committed another violation of the law that served as the basis for the vehicle stop. The new law defines “using” broadly, to include “holding a portable electronic device while viewing, taking or transmitting images, playing games, or composing, sending, reading, viewing, accessing, browsing, transmitting, saving or retrieving email, text messages or other electronic data.” The new law also increases the penalty, from two to three points on the driver’s license, and allows for a maximum fine of $150.
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the new law on July 12, 2011, and it became effective immediately. Police in Westchester County have issued summonses to approximately165 drivers for texting while driving as of mid-September, as compared to approximately 100 summonses for texting while driving in all of 2010. In that same July through mid-September period of this year, there were approximately 1,459 summonses issued to drivers in Westchester County for talking on their cell phones while driving.
We know based on research conducted in this area that using a cell phone or other hand-held electronic device is a dangerous distraction to a driver. A University of Utah study found that using a cell phone while driving, whether it is hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reaction time as much as having a blood alcohol concentration of .08, the concentration that constitutes driving while intoxicated. These same researchers found that texting – reading or writing a message – takes a driver’s eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds; in that time, a car being driven at 55 miles per hour travels farther than the length of a football field. Researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute recorded drivers’ reaction times to various changes in road conditions and found that reaction time doubles – from 1-2 seconds to 3-4 seconds – when a driver is texting. A Clemson University study carried out using a simulator found that text messaging and using iPods caused drivers to leave their lanes 10 percent more often than drivers who were not distracted. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.
Teen drivers are of particular safety concern to me because of their relative inexperience as drivers and their high rate of texting. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. Nielsen reports that the average teen is sending or receiving 3,339 text messages every month, an astounding number that averages out to six messages per hour when these teens are not asleep. Pew Center researchers found that one in three texting teens, ages 16 to 17, admit to texting behind the wheel – one in three ! Government statistics show that the under-20 age group has the greatest proportion of distracted drivers. Of drivers under age 20 involved in fatal crashes, 16% were reportedly to have been distracted while driving. While other distractions such as eating and drinking, talking to passengers, or changing radio stations pose dangers, texting is an especially dangerous form of distraction. It involves taking your eyes off the road, your hands off the steering wheel, and your focus off the task at hand, and this is why it is a topic of such concern.
Research and real world experience confirm what New York’s law now requires: for their own safety and the safety of others, drivers need to put down hand-held device, and parents need to model this behavior for their children, just as they insist on seat belts. Let’s get back to road safety basics: keep your eyes, your hands and your mind on the road.
For more information, please visit our website at www.westchesterda.net
Janet DiFiore is Westchester County District Attorney.