Most Western New Yorkers lack the conviction that Kelly Cline showed in celebrating the state’s summer crackdown on distracted driving. Then again, most Western New Yorkers haven’t lost a child to that 21st century scourge of the roadways. Nevertheless, most drivers, we suspect, would echo the West Seneca woman’s reaction to news of the crackdown: “Isn’t is awesome?”
The state launched a $1 million blitz last week, with police officers patrolling in unmarked sport utility vehicles, on the lookout for texting drivers.
Only a few days earlier, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law increasing the penalties for texting while driving for young and new drivers.
In addition to fines, those drivers now face a 60-day suspension for a first offense. A second conviction within six months will revoke a probationary license for six months and a junior license for another 60 days.
“We want young drivers to know this is not OK,” Cuomo said. “Inattention and inexperience can be a death sentence.”
In one regard, focusing on those drivers makes sense. They are among the most incorrigible texters and, with the change, texting is taking its place alongside speeding and other major offenses for drivers with learning permits and probationary or junior licenses.
Yet anyone who drives or rides in a car has seen older drivers texting, as well, and while their judgment may be more reliable than that of younger drivers, they still pose a real risk to everyone else on the road. There seems no compelling reason to exempt them from more serious penalties for texting.
It is worth noting that while most people focus on texting and talking on a cellphone, the state’s law on distracted driving covers all handheld electronic devices. So, finding the right playlist on an iPod can also draw a ticket and, ultimately, a fine and points on a driver’s license. Devices that are attached to a car surface, including GPS units, are exempt.
The issue is deadly serious. Cline lost her son, A.J. Larson, 5½ years ago, but she is hardly alone. Many other drivers, often young ones, have died because of texting while driving. That’s not surprising, given the state’s estimate that one of every five auto accidents is attributable to some form of distracted driving.
It threatens to become worse. Carmakers are now building Internet connections into cars. While that will survive the attached-to-a-surface exemption, it is clearly not safe to give drivers yet another way to divert their attention from the primary task of navigating 2,000 pounds of glass and metal hurtling down the road.
The good news is that all hands seem to be on deck in combatting this problem. Cuomo made distracted driving a more serious issues two years ago when he elevated it from a secondary offense – in which a ticket could be issued only if the driver was stopped for some other infraction – to a primary offense.
Student drivers are taught about the dangers of texting while driving; even the cellphone companies are getting into act, adopting the slogan, “It can wait.”
Some observers have suggested that drivers put the cellphone in the back seat to make it inaccessible while driving. There is even an app available to lock the phone and automatically respond to texts with the message that its owner is driving and cannot respond immediately.
All these are valuable tools, but the main thing has got to be instilling responsibility and common sense into drivers. It may take some time, just as it did to accustom motorists to using their seat belts. As with that battle, this one will save lives, and that makes the effort not only awesome, but urgent.