Drive, Don't Text/Text, Don't Drive


By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Intel Free Press.

New York State has increased its penalties against texting while driving over the past few weeks.

The Department of Motor Vehicles holds a system where drivers have an 18 month period to maintain 11 points on their license. These points are taken away according to traffic violations, i.e. speeding or failing to yield right-of-way.

On June 1, New York enacted a law that takes 5 points off of driver’s license for conviction of texting while driving. This was increased from 3 points, putting this offense on the same level as reckless driving or failing to stop for a school bus.

Then on July 1, laws were toughened against probationary and junior drivers who text and drive; upon first conviction, such offenders will receive a 60-day license suspension. Part of the motivation for this rule was the fact that teenage (junior) drivers have a high tendency to text while driving, and, according Governor Andrew Cuomo, this hazard would only get worse without such strict preventative measures.

Though the New York State Police played no role in trying to influence the policy toughening, a representative from their Public Information Office in Albany told BTR that they believe, like any law enforcement agency, it could work to deter texting-while driving.

“Toughening of policies often conveys the seriousness with which society perceives an issue, so yes, it can influence behavior. However, public awareness is essential to this happening, as is enforcement of the laws prohibiting the behavior.”

When asked how an officer is to actually go about telling whether a driver is reading or writing texts, the State Police responds:

“Authorities need not determine whether a driver is reading or writing text messages.  According to the law, using a portable electronic device  (can be a phone, computer, iPod, etc.) is defined as holding and viewing the device.  Therefore, law enforcement officers only need to observe the driver looking at the device in their hand.”

Of course texting while driving is dangerous and consequential accidents could lead to injuries and fatalities. In terms of gauging whether the penalties would be more severe for such cases.

“Criminal penalties are not more severe unless it triggers another section of law, such as manslaughter, if a prosecutor is able to establish that texting while driving amounted to recklessly causing the death of another,” the State Police explains.  “However, there are is currently no definition in the Penal Law that specifically includes use of electronic devices for vehicular assault or vehicular homicide, as there is with driving while intoxicated.  However, in addition to the criminal penalties, the violator would likely also be held civilly liable.”

So far, State Police officers have issued hundreds of tickets against texting drivers.

What New York State Drivers Say

Through an inquiry of twenty anonymous New York State licensed drivers, half of them respond that they had been aware of the five-point policy for texting while driving. Only five people, however, had known about the more recent enactment of penalties against junior drivers.

As for whether they support these laws, 90 percent of these drivers are in favor. One 28-year-old female is unsure because she does not feel that the penalties should be so harsh if someone is texting while stopped at a red light. Another 45-year-old female does not support the laws, as she believes “first time offenders should get a warning.”

Most people claim that they never text while behind the wheel, or have only done so very rarely. One 45-year-old male responds that he had been texting behind the wheel occasionally; he also comments that he actually became aware of this new law in his state because he had just received a five-point penalty for this very offense. He continues into admitting that in the past, he had found out about enactment of New York State’s mandatory seatbelt law, as well as a new speed limit, in a similar fashion.

In terms of actually being on the road, most respond that they feel safer with this law in place, but a few say that they do not, or are unsure.

“People will do whatever they want, regardless of the law,” responds a 58-year-old male. Another male, who is 28 and thinks the penalties should be even stricter, is apprehensive because he feels that it’s difficult to really implement safety if this practice is only dealt with when police catch offenders.

Being only one of fifty states where people drive, it is doubtful that these new laws are because people text and drive more often in New York than elsewhere in the country.

“We do need the states to do what New York has done, and make it a primary offense,” says Robert Edgin, a Colorado resident who started Texting Thumb Bands.

His organization produces rubber bands, bracelets, and bumper stickers that say things like “TEXTING KILLS” and “DNT TXT N DRV.” Its members are also involved in spreading awareness by working with high schools (some of which were in New York State), colleges and youth safety organizations. In addition, Texting Thumb Bands disperses pledges for this cause, and works to influence politicians to make laws tougher.

Advocating for awareness of this issue, Edgin examines how texting behind the wheel can be even worse than being drunk. In addition to statistics, the mentality behind it needs to change, particularly with teenagers.

“The younger drivers — which is who we try to work with — are so good at texting that they believe they are immune from danger because of their texting skills,” says Edgin. He compares this with typical people who drive under the influence, who already acknowledge the detrimental consequences of alcohol and driving.

Another factor is frequency — people who drink and drive will not do so every day, whereas drivers can correspond through text messages multiple times a day, multiple days a week.

“I think at some point in time, maybe a decade from now, most vehicles will have the technology where texting and driving just doesn’t take place,” predicts Edgin. Until such engineering endeavors evolve, people have to take it on themselves to decrease danger.

“Tougher laws are a start, but that’s only a small start to fixing the problem,” he says. Community awareness is also important, but people really need to try and push for “peer pressure to remind teens not to make such destructive daily decisions.”