Dobie: Andrew Cuomo's texting-while-driving plan falls short

An man works his phone as he drives An man works his phone as he drives through traffic in Dallas. (Feb. 26, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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New York State will have the toughest texting-while-driving laws in the nation if legislation proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is adopted. The governor wants to take away for one full year the driver's license of anyone younger than 21 who is convicted of texting while driving. That's a good idea.

But why stop there?

If we're interested -- truly interested -- in changing drivers' behavior and making the roads safer, why not yank the licenses of texters who are 21 or older, too?

It's not as if adults drive any better than teens when they're not looking at the road.

Among the gaggle of alarming statistics charting the dangers of driving while texting, let's start with this one: Sending or receiving a text message takes a driver's eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds on average, according to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration. If you're driving at 55 mph, that equates to a little more than the length of a football field. Blindfolded. The study does not differentiate between the eyes of a teen and the eyes of an adult.

This is not intended to minimize the risk of teens driving while they're typing away on cellphones. It's a frightening scenario. But how much less of a threat is a texting adult?

Think of your own experiences on Long Island's roads. Think about the people who did inexplicable things right in front of you, or right beside you -- as they looked at the cellphone in their hand or stared at something in their lap. Were they all teens?

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To be sure, there are many types of distracted driving -- eating, drinking and applying makeup, among others -- and they present different levels of risk. Texting is a special form of distracted driving, because it involves all three types of distractions -- manual (you move your hands off the steering wheel), visual (you take your eyes off the road) and cognitive (your mind wanders from the task at hand).

Some might argue that adults, by virtue of their greater experience, are better able to handle distractions and therefore pose less of a risk. Others might point out that teens are the better electronic multi-taskers.

The reality: Studies show texting increases risk at all ages. A University of Utah analysis concluded that simply talking on a cellphone quadruples your risk of having an accident -- just about the same as if you were driving drunk. Texting doubles that risk again.

The comparison with drunken driving is telling. New York suspends licenses for varying durations for those under 21 and over 21 for drunken driving convictions. Cuomo wants to stiffen penalties so anyone with two drunken-driving convictions in a three-year period would lose his or her license for five years; three convictions would result in permanent revocation. If texting is in the same risky behavior ballpark, shouldn't the penalties be similar?

Nationwide, 41 states ban texting for all drivers, and 39 have different penalties for teens. None suspend adult drivers who text, says the AAA. But the number of crashes due to distracted driving, including texting, continues to rise.

Cuomo, to his credit, has been tough on texting, adding shorter license suspensions for teens and increased points -- the same as for passing a stopped school bus -- on the driving records of all texters. His new initiative would ratchet up penalties again. But it could go further.

It took many years and lots of real-life tragedy to get penalties for drunken driving increased. Let's not take so long to deal with texting.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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