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Uberti: Keep your eyes on the road -- anti-texting troopers on the prowl

An man works his phone as he drives

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

Few are innocent: I do it, you do it, your grandmother does it -- well, maybe she does.

Texting while driving has become habit for nearly every motorist, not just teens who are glued to their smartphones already. Why answer a message later if you can do it now? It takes just a few seconds, after all, not long enough for the police to catch you. Right?

Perhaps not any more. On July 1, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law stricter punishments for messaging on that smartphone while behind the wheel. Now he’s putting some muscle into catching distracted drivers.

It’s simple: taller police cars.

He’s putting more state police in "Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement" vehicles, law enforcement shorthand for unmarked SUVs. They help hide troopers driving alongside you on the highways while giving them better views of drivers using handheld devices.

It’s all part of the $1 million he’s spending for additional patrols through the rest of summer. State police officials declined to comment on the scope of the effort, including the number of undercover vehicles patrolling Long Island’s state parkways. But over the Fourth of July weekend -- the first seeing added patrols -- troopers ticketed 486 motorists for distracted driving, up from 84 during the 2012 holiday.

This additional deterrent -- especially for young drivers, who face much stiffer penalties when caught -- is a welcome change. Motorists already have enough distractions behind the wheel: Finding Jay Z’s latest hit on the radio and eating Taco Bell without spilling hot sauce everywhere, to name a few.

But it’s not just younger drivers. The bells and whistles in new cars entice all motorists to search for good pizza or sort through their address books. Those navigation and communication tools will simplify driving once voice command programs improve, but that could take a few years.

Smartphones have revolutionized our daily lives, allowing us to bring our work and play wherever we go. But a car is neither a personal office nor an entertainment center. In the five seconds it takes you to scan an email, your vehicle, traveling 55 mph, covers 400 feet.

Technology will eventually catch up to our smartphone-enabled impatience. But until it does, police can and should try to make driving just driving again.