Just in time for the busy holiday travel season, New York State Police are mounting a heightened campaign against texting drivers. That’s heightened in the literal sense: Troopers are being equipped with 32 tall, unmarked SUVs that make it easier to see if a driver, cellphone in his lap, is texting.
It’s working. Drivers don’t even know when a trooper is watching them texting on a phone they think is safely hidden in their laps.
It’s a serious and welcome escalation in the state’s commitment to disincentivize the dangerous practice of texting while driving. In fact, New York appears to be leading the nation in aggressive and forward-thinking ways of discouraging a practice that diverts drivers’ attention from where it belongs: on the road.
New York and 40 other states ban text messaging for all drivers. This state also prohibits using hand-held cellphones, and this year toughened the penalties for using hand-held devices to text or talk. Now, the violation comes with five points on the driver’s record, up from three, and the ticket carries fines of up to $200.
In addition to the tougher penalties, the state also toughened enforcement. During a two-month crackdown this year, state troopers issued 5,533 tickets for texting while driving, compared to 924 in the same period last year – an increase of about 600 percent.
But New York isn’t merely ordering drivers not to text and raising the pain threshold for those who do not comply. The state has also rebranded the 91 existing rest areas and turnoffs on the Thruway and other highways as “texting zones.” Some of these areas are advertised with highway signs reading, “It can wait. Text stop 5 miles.”
Whoever thought of that should get a raise. It sends just the right message and lets drivers know they will be able to return the text shortly.
Western New Yorkers have become tragically familiar with the high costs of texting while driving. Several people – mainly young people – have died in car accidents as a result of texting while driving. It’s shocking but not surprising, given the results of a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
That study found that texting increased the risk of a crash or near crash to more than 23 times that of “nondistracted” driving. Anyone who thought seriously about those odds would view the risks of the road in a radically different light.
That makes this an especially challenging time of year. Holiday parties and the attendant consumption – often over-consumption – of alcohol already add to the dangers on the road. Together with the explosion of texting, it makes driving in December a notably more hazardous proposition.
New York, at least, is on its way to getting its hands around this problem. Its carrot-and-stick approach makes for a useful strategy for lowering the risks and making the holidays safer. The state needs to keep its eye on this issue and adjust as necessary.