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LI cops step up crackdowns on texting while driving

A Suffolk County police officer checking radar on

A Suffolk County police officer checking radar on the corner of Main Street and Lawrence Avenue in Smithtown, stops a driver after she was observed texting while driving with an infant in the vehicle on May 10, 2011. Credit: James Carbone

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story.

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

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources. In this story, Newsday could not locate: Edward Foley. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission. If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

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