Starting Friday, fines for texting, emailing and using handheld phones while driving will get more expensive in New York State. Fines for using mobile devices will increase to up to $150 for a first offense, plus a mandatory $80 surcharge for moving violations, and go up to $400 (plus the $80) for a third. A violation also costs a whopping 5 driver's license points. In addition, teen and probationary drivers -- arguably those most prone to violating existing laws -- will face 60-day license suspensions.
That's one expensive text message, and it puts your license in jeopardy.
But if that's what it takes to deter device-dependent drivers from this obviously dangerous behavior, then so be it. Laws against handheld mobile phone use and texting have been on the books for years in New York, but we all know how widely those laws are flouted. In fact, despite drivers' nearly universal disapproval of texting and emailing while driving, more than one in four of us admitted sending a text message or email while driving in the previous month, according to a survey conducted by AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety last year.
Texting behind the wheel is extraordinarily dangerous, research has shown. That's because it engages the driver visually, manually and cognitively, creating a trifecta of deadly distractions. Studies show that on average, a texting driver takes his or her eyes off the road for about five seconds to read or send a text message, more than doubling a driver's risk of a crash. At highway speeds, that's long enough to cover the length of a football field. Yet drivers continue to do it. While increased penalties may be a painful lesson for some, a bigger stick is clearly needed to change widespread behaviors.
Over the past two decades, New York's combination of stronger laws and enforcement led the nation in successful efforts to persuade drivers to wear seat belts and not drive while drunk. As a result, we helped establish a national model for other states, saving thousands of lives. Today, widespread texting and phone use while driving threaten the hard-earned reductions in motor vehicle crashes -- a leading cause of preventable death and injury in the United States.
In fact, from 2005 to 2011, there has been about a 143 percent increase in mobile phone-related crashes in the state. In that same period, there's been an approximately 18 percent decrease in alcohol-related crashes. We can't let the progress we made saving lives erode.
Teenage drivers -- the "digital generation" -- are especially prone to distracted driving. Surveys indicate that on average, they talk on their mobile phones an hour each day and send 80 texts per day. Many have handheld devices with Internet capabilities. Ninety-four percent of them report keeping their mobile phones on while driving. Those are troubling statistics, given that car crashes remain the No. 1 cause of death and injury for that generation. Hopefully the state's new laws will send a powerful message to our young and inexperienced drivers that texting and driving will not be tolerated in New York State.
Now that the new penalties are going into effect, state and local police departments have pledged to vigorously enforce these laws this summer, with checkpoints and undercover vehicles to catch distracted drivers. Some violators may be taken by surprise by the steep fines and points, but I say bring them on. One look around will tell you that many drivers won't drop their devices without them.
John A. Corlett is legislative committee chair of AAA New York State, based in Garden City.