Desk of the DA: Put down the cell phone while driving!

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s monthly message for November (edited for length) centers on the dangers of texting while driving:

As Westchester County’s chief law enforcement officer, I am concerned with all aspects of public safety, including safe driving, and I would like to focus drivers, especially young drivers and their parents, on safety issues and changes in the law with respect to driving while using cell phones and other hand-held portable electronic devices.

It is illegal in New York State for a driver to use a hand-held portable electronic device while driving. The new law allows a police officer to stop a vehicle whose driver is using a hand-held portable electronic device and issue the driver a ticket.  The new law defines “using” broadly, to include “holding a portable electronic device while viewing, taking or transmitting images, playing games, or composing, sending, reading, viewing, accessing, browsing, transmitting, saving or retrieving email, text messages or other electronic data.”  The new law also increases the penalty, from two to three points on the driver’s license, and allows for a maximum fine of $150.

Police in Westchester County have issued summonses to approximately 165 drivers for texting while driving as of mid-September, as compared to approximately 100 summonses for texting while driving in all of 2010. In that same July through mid-September period of this year, there were approximately 1,459 summonses issued to drivers in Westchester County for talking on their cell phones while driving.

We know based on research conducted in this area that using a cell phone or other hand-held electronic device is a dangerous distraction to a driver.  A Clemson University study carried out using a simulator found that text messaging and using iPods caused drivers to leave their lanes 10 percent more often than drivers who were not distracted. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving.

Teen drivers are of particular safety concern to me because of their relative inexperience as drivers and their high rate of texting. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teens. Nielsen reports that the average teen is sending or receiving 3,339 text messages every month, an astounding number that averages out to six messages per hour when these teens are not asleep. Pew Center researchers found that one in three texting teens, ages 16 to 17, admit to texting behind the wheel – one in three ! Government statistics show that the under-20 age group has the greatest proportion of distracted drivers. Of drivers under age 20 involved in fatal crashes, 16% were reportedly to have been distracted while driving.

Drivers need to put down hand-held device, and parents need to model this behavior for their children, just as they insist on seat belts. Let’s get back to road safety basics: keep your eyes, your hands and your mind on the road.