In the waning days of this year's legislative session, state lawmakers are stepping up a push to steepen the penalties for texting while driving, and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo has entered the fray.
The Senate and Assembly on Tuesday passed a bill that would make texting while driving—as well as using an iPad, laptop or other electronic device—a primary offense punishable by a fine of up to $150. Currently, such violations are only secondary offenses, meaning a driver must be stopped for another reason, such as speeding, in order to be given a ticket.
Last week, Cuomo announced plans to introduce a similar bill that also would slap a driver with three points on his or her license if caught texting behind the wheel.
"Distracted driving is nothing less than a lethal activity for the driver themselves, other drivers on the road, and pedestrians. Current warnings, educational programs, and driving laws aren't working," Cuomo said in a statement.
His office declined to comment on the bill that passed the legislature, which also would make cell phone safety a part of the training curriculum for new drivers.
The bill passed unanimously in both chambers, garnering the support of all the lawmakers in the lower Hudson Valley.
"Texting has become a common form of communication, especially among young people, and has led to a new form of distracted driving resulting in preventable fatalities on our roads," said Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown), who sponsored a similar measure earlier this year.
A number of law enforcement and trade groups also came out in support of the ban, including the American Automobile Association (AAA), which is spearheading a campaign to pass texting bans in all 50 states by 2013, and Transportation Alternatives, a New York-based advocacy group.
"Nobody should be texting or updating Facebook while piloting a two-ton piece of machinery on public streets," said Paul Steely White, the group's executive director. "We need more leaders like Governor Cuomo to bring those [fatality] numbers down to zero."
Even carmakers are getting involved. BMW recently launched a campaign of TV and magazine ads that suggest texting while driving puts young children at risk. One commercial shows a series of overprotective parents, one of whom views a text while driving and crashes.
Federal statistics show that about 20 percent of crashes that result in fatalities involve some form of distracted driving. As much as one-quarter of those crashes were attributed to a driver using their cell phone. Further, in a 2009 AAA survey more than half of teenage drivers said they had sent or viewed a text or e-mail while driving.
According to the New York Times, in 2010, the first full year in which the secondary offense of texting while driving existed, police issued only 3,200 tickets for the offense. That pales in comparison to the 332,000 issued for talking on a phone while driving.
Texting while driving is currently a primary offense in 29 states and the District of Columbia, and is a secondary offense in New York and three other states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Three states bar only bus drivers from texting behind the wheel, while seven states have laws that prohibit novice drivers from doing so.