State Police are amplifying efforts to catch motorists using their phones while behind the wheel in hopes behaviors will change.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, July 9, while in Buffalo, detailed a $1 million summer initiative to increase enforcement of distracted driving laws by boosting undercover operations statewide. State Police will use unmarked vehicles that are specially designed to enhance the ability of troopers to catch people using their phone while driving. The effort started during the 4th of July holiday weekend.
“Distracted driving is a crisis. It is a crisis that is getting worse,” Cuomo said. “When this crisis gets worse, people die. That is why it’s important.”
One in five crashes in New York is a result of distracted driving, Cuomo said, and the number of cell phone related accidents has tripled over the last seven years. From 2005 to 2011, the number of deaths and injuries from distracted driving increased by 143 percent.
“We now have five times more accidents from distracted driving than from alcohol abuse and driving,” Cuomo said. “It is especially bad for young people … (who are) culturally linked to these devices in a way that old people like me are not. … They have an umbilical cord that is connected to the device.”
Cuomo said he knows firsthand how attached younger people are to electronic devices because he has three daughters, two of whom just started driving.
“Forty-three percent of young people admit to texting while driving. I believe there is a large percent that don’t admit,” he said. “It is hard to explain to them how toxic a combination this can be. The inexperience and inattention can kill people … it can be a death sentence.”
Patricia Groeber, deputy superintendent field commander of the State Police, said every driver, especially younger ones, need to realize texting while driving is dangerous.
“With these new laws and regulations in place it is our turn as law enforcement to step up our enforcement efforts,” Groeber said. “State Police will have a visibly increased presence on the road with more troopers patrolling the highways in marked State Police vehicles and (Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement vehicles).”
The new, unmarked SUVs are designed with higher-than-average platforms to allow officers to more easily view drivers. If an offender is found, the cars are also equipped with hidden high intensity emergency lights.
“These vehicles have proven to be an effective tool in fighting and identifying drivers who are illegally using handheld devices while they are driving,” Groeber said. “(The vehicle) allows our officers to see into vehicles without being detected.”
The SUVs also will be in several colors. Groeber jokingly remarked, “I’m not going to tell you what colors they are.”
Funding for the additional State Police effort will be provided through redirecting resources and from seized assets accounts, Cuomo said.
Kelly Cline, a West Seneca mother whose 20-year-old son died in a texting-while-driving accident, stressed the importance of police being able to stop a vehicle solely for the purpose of texting while driving. Two years ago, she joined Cuomo when he signed a law establishing texting while driving as a primary traffic offense, rather than a secondary offense.
“These are not just regulations and laws. It is about the lives that can and will be saved,” Cline said. “Unfortunately, my family has firsthand knowledge of what can happen when someone chooses to text and drive.”
Last year, police ticketed almost 217,000 people for using a cell phone while driving. As of June 1 this year, almost 70,00 people have been ticketed. In Albany County last year, 3,773 people were ticketed, and 933 have been ticketed this year.
Recently approved distracted driving laws lauded by Cuomo include increasing the penalty for distracted driving from three to five points and increasing license suspension and revocation periods for young and new drivers caught driving distracted.
Cuomo said the laws are focused on changing behavior, which he admitted isn’t easy but “is not impossible.” He pointed to changing behaviors regarding seatbelt use and drunk driving.
“We can change behavior and we have to do it with this,” Cuomo said. “It has to be uncool to do this. The uncool kid is the kid that texts while driving because that is a jerky thing to do.”