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Suffolk County targets distracted driving

Suffolk County officials have formed a working group to explore ways to reduce distracted driving, which officials have blamed for causing accidents.

The group, which will include government, education and law enforcement officials, will develop a $100,000 public awareness campaign and recommend new enforcement strategies, officials announced Wednesday.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, who will chair the working group, called distracted driving “one of most pervasive public safety threats that has the potential to impact every single person in the county.”

The group was announced as legislators moved toward an expected vote Wednesday on whether to extend the county's red-light camera program for another five years.

A recent study of 100 intersections with red-light cameras found accidents went up nearly 60 percent over three years, even as the number of serious accidents declined.

Paul Margiotta, executive director of the county's traffic agency, has attributed the overall rise in accidents at the camera sites to drivers' increased use of smartphones.

Critics have blamed the increase on the red-light cameras, which they say prompt motorists to stop suddenly to avoid tickets.

County police issued 5,450 citations for driving with a mobile device last year and have issued 3,320 this year as of July 31, Hart said.

There were 48,592 motor vehicle crashes across Suffolk County last year, and 26,876 have occurred so far this year.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone cited a study by the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration that found distracted driving was associated with 26 percent of all crashes nationwide.

“We know lives are at stake here," Bellone said, "and we’ll do everything we can to keep our roads safe.”

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