Tickets issued for texting while driving surged on Long Island last year, climbing 79 percent, state records show.
The number of texting tickets issued to drivers soared from 1,192 in 2012 to 2,289 last year in Suffolk, a 92 percent increase. In Nassau, the total rose 62 percent, from 879 in 2012 to 1,424 last year. Police attributed the increases to stepped-up enforcement as texting has become a leading hazard on area roads.
"Distracted driving is just as dangerous as driving while intoxicated," said Suffolk County Police Highway Patrol Lt. Daniel Meyer. "We take it very seriously."
Many law enforcement agencies throughout the country have launched crackdowns on texting while driving in recent years as smartphones have become ubiquitous and texting the preferred form of communication for many Americans. More than 2 trillion text messages are sent in the United States annually, according to 2012 figures from CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group.
The state's first anti-texting law was signed by then-Gov. David A. Paterson in August 2009 amid increasing concerns about distracted driving.
But the New York law in its original form was relatively weak, police said. It declared that authorities could not ticket drivers for texting as a primary offense. Instead, they would first have to pull the offending driver over for a different infraction. That requirement accounted for low ticket totals in the law's early years, officials said.
Authorities issued just two texting-while-driving tickets in Suffolk and seven in Nassau in 2009, state Department of Motor Vehicles records show. In 2010, law enforcement agencies issued 79 tickets to texting drivers in Suffolk and 127 in Nassau -- still a tiny percentage of the more 2.06 million licensed drivers in the region.
Law stiffened 3 years ago
In 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a law upgrading texting while driving to a primary offense, freeing authorities to issue many more tickets. Suffolk authorities that year wrote 550 tickets while Nassau issued 267.
"Nassau police continue to aggressively enforce the state's no-texting-while-driving law in order to save lives and prevent senseless accidents," County Executive Edward Mangano said recently in a statement.
For a first texting-while-driving offense in New York, fines range from $50 to $150. For a second offense within 18 months, the maximum fine is $200. For any more within 18 months, the highest fine is $400. Conviction rates were not immediately available.
Drivers also get 5 points on their license for each violation. A license can be revoked or suspended after a driver racks up 11 points in an 18-month period. In a further effort to combat distraction caused by texting and driving, Cuomo in September unveiled a plan to create "texting zones" along the Long Island Expressway, New York Thruway and other major state highways.
Pullover areas on LIE
Just two of the state's 91 designated areas for motorists to pull over and use their mobile devices are along the LIE, eastbound and westbound between exits 51 and 52 in Dix Hills, officials said.
Cuomo has also proposed a law that would double the period of license suspension from six months to a year for any person under age 21 convicted of texting while driving.
According to statistics compiled by the federal government, an estimated 421,000 people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2012 -- a 9 percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011.
The number of people killed in distracted-driver crashes decreased slightly to 3,328 in 2012 from 3,360 in 2011, the statistics show. About 61 percent of drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 admit to texting while driving, according to a national AAA survey.
An unrelated study of 715 adults in California between the ages of 30 and 64 found that nearly two-thirds admitted to using a cellphone while driving with children in the car, and one-third acknowledged texting while driving.
A Federal Highway Administration study found that drivers who text while driving are 23 times more likely to crash than those who don't.
Several motorists ticketing for texting while driving in 2013 said it is hard to resist the urge to text in traffic, despite the stiff penalties.
"In the age we live in, you're expected to never be incommunicado, so it's hard sometimes not to text when you're driving," said Edward Foley, 43, of Mineola, who said he was issued a texting-while-driving ticket last year and pleaded guilty. "It's a tough habit to break."
-- With Robert Brodsky