by David F. Sherman
The penalties for driving while distracted in New York state are finally catching up with a problem that seems to grow more serious each day.
We have all seen motorists talking on their cellphones as they navigate busy thoroughfares and small neighborhood streets alike. Do drivers who try to conceal their smartphones by pressing their entire device between their ear and the palm of their hand actually think the ruse is working?
Other offenders are less deceptive. These are the folks who hold the cellphone to their ear in exactly the same manner as they would at home in the kitchen.
I have seen truckers texting by holding a smartphone against the top of the steering wheel. Perhaps they can justify this maneuver because of the short distance their eyes have to travel between the road and the texting screen.
Whenever I see such activity, I am tempted to sound my car horn or simply scream at the offending party. But that would be distracted driving on my part.
This is National Teen Driver Awareness Week in New York state. Currently, there are at least 331,000 drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 in the Empire State. Recently passed distracted driving laws and periodic crackdowns on distracted driving are part of a national awareness campaign aimed at keeping teens - and all drivers - safe.
Three months ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to impose the same penalties on drivers with probationary and junior licenses for texting while driving and using a hand-held cellphone that they receive for speeding and reckless driving: 60-day suspensions for first convictions, and revocations of 60 days (for junior licenses) or six months (for probationary licenses) for subsequent convictions within six months of the time a license is restored after suspension.
The governor also directed the Department of Motor Vehicles to increase the number of points charged against an individual's driving record upon conviction for texting while driving and cellphone related infractions from three points to five points for drivers of all ages.
Since July 4, almost 28,000 tickets have been issued by the New York State Police to distracted drivers, according to the governor's office. That figure does not take into account tickets written by village, town, city and county law enforcement agencies.
I would like to know how many from that figure have been ticketed more than once for the same violation.
According to a recent study by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 75 percent of serious crashes involving teens were caused by a critical teen driver error. The three most common errors - driving too fast for road conditions, being distracted, and failing to detect a hazard - accounted for nearly half of all serious crashes.
My vehicle is equipped with a Bluetooth device that allows hands-free conversations. Yet I still must "dial" or select the number I am calling and then select the function for two-way communication. It does not automatically engage the car's audio system.
While these annoyances allow me to be a safer driver, it's an imperfect system. I try to keep these conversations short because I find myself drifting away from watching where I am going when I'm juggling the skills of listening and talking.
We live in a society where a large number of people are addicted to instant communication. Few telephone calls are so important that they cannot wait until we can pull over, especially outgoing ones.
Texting? The decision on what to order for dinner is not justifiable. Neither are monotonous, mindless "Hi, how are you?" snippets.
Tweeting? That's an electronic version of throwing darts. Receiving genuine news via Twitter is exciting, but realistically, very few of us tweet like we're competing with Wolf Blitzer.
What's worse is the can of worms on my car's center console when I have my smartphone plugged into a charging cord and my iPod connected to the radio's auxiliary outlet. There's hardly any place to put my coffee and my portable police/fire scanner.
Now, that's what I call distracted driving. I promise to be better.
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at [email protected].