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Texting and driving now a primary offense

The newly signed distracted drivers law has increased the penalty for motorists caught texting while driving and makes it a primary offence, allowing allows law enforcement to pull over motorists suspected solely of using an handheld electronic device. Photo by AP.
July 18, 2011
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a distracted drivers law July 12 that stiffens the penalty for people caught using handheld electronic devices while driving.

The law makes texting a primary offense and increases the penalty from two points to three added to driver's license. The monetary fine remains up to $150.

"I am proud to sign this bill today, both as the governor and as a father of three teenagers," Cuomo said. "It's plain and simple: Distracted driving leads to tragedies that have affected families all across New York. This new law will help ensure that drivers keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel."

Holding an electronic device, sending or viewing electronic data — such as text or image messages — and playing games are activities that can warrant a ticket. The law does not restrict using a handheld device affixed to a surface or using an attached GPS device.

Though also illegal before this legislation, using handheld electronic devices was just a secondary offense, meaning police officers needed a separate reason to pull over motorists. Now, because it is a primary offense, a ticket requires no other transgression.

"As a former police officer, I've seen the devastation caused by distracted drivers," said Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, D-Long Beach, a sponsor of the bill, who began working on this legislation several years ago. "Today, we are giving law enforcement the tools they need to keep our roads safe and prevent future accidents. These changes will save lives."

The family of 53-year-old father and husband Tian Sheng Lin was at the bill signing at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Lin died last September after a motorist ran him over while texting. This tragedy, Cuomo said, brought the issue of distracted driving to light and prompted state leaders to act.

"They were there crying," said Weisenberg. "The accident happened in September and they were still suffering. We don't want other families to suffer like that."

The assemblyman says he hopes this bill will give police officers a better opportunity to enforce the law.

Last year all New York police agencies — from the state police to village police departments — issued more than 3,000 tickets to drivers caught texting, a secondary offense at the time. In California, where texting is a primary offense, a similar number of tickets were issued by just one agency. In New Jersey, where this is also a primary offense, they issue about 10,000 citations each month.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 16 percent of fatal accidents in 2009 were due to distracted driving. A national study by AAA found 1 in 5 drivers text or read e-mails while driving.

This law will not penalize police officers, fire fighters, or emergency vehicle drivers who use handheld devices while doing their job. Drivers who are in contact with or trying to contact law enforcement, the fire department, or medical personnel during an emergency are also excused.

"With this new legislation, New York state driving laws have finally caught up with today's technology," said Sen. Carl L. Marcellino, R-Oyster Bay, a sponsor of the bill. "Our new law will strengthen enforcement against drivers using handheld electronic devices and help keep drivers, passengers, and pedestrians safe. I am proud to stand with Governor Cuomo as he signs the bill I sponsored into law and we finally make distracted driving a serious offense."

With the new distracted driving law now in effect, New York joins nine other states in categorizing the use of handheld devices while driving a primary offense — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — as well as the District of Columbia.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 34 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam have all banned text messaging while driving. An additional seven states prohibit new drivers from text messaging behind the wheel.

To avoid distracted driving, the association recommends motorists turn off phones while driving, ask passengers to use any handheld devices or pull over before using one.

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