Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Tuesday that will make it easier to enforce laws against distracted driving.
The new law, which takes effect immediately, makes the use of handheld electronic devices while driving a primary violation rather than a secondary one. Police officers will now be able to pull over drivers texting or using other handheld devices while driving even if the driver does not do anything else wrong.
"Basically what it does is make it easier to enforce the law," said Lt. Don Butterworth of the Orangetown Police Department. "You don't need another violation prior to stopping a vehicle to enforce it."
Texting and the use of other handheld devices while driving was already a violation, but police could only pull over drivers who had some other sort of violation, such as speeding.
"Unfortunately, that other violation was often an accident," Butterworth said. "We want to try to stop that."
Senator David Carlucci (D-New City) was a strong supporter of the legislation. He pointed to federal data that linked 16,000 deaths nationwide to texting while driving.
"Texting while driving is a deadly combination," Carlucci said through a press release Tuesday. "Texting has become a common form of communication, especially among young people, and has led to a new form of distracted driving, resulting in preventable fatalities on our roads. This law will provide our law enforcement officers with the ability to save lives."
Carlucci cited a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showing that drivers are 23 percent more likely to be involved in an accident while text messaging. The evidence of the problem is easy to see even without such studies.
"I think anybody who drives a car or is a passenger in a car can look around and see how widespread the activity is," Butterworth said. "The public as a whole understands how widespread it is. It has been shown it is definitely a distraction and it has led to numerous tragedies."
In addition to making enforcement easier, the law also helps send the message that the use of handheld devices while driving is a serious problem.
"What the governor is doing is putting it out there for people to realize how serious it is," Butterworth said. "He wants people to know he takes it seriously and the community should take it seriously. If you take your eyes off the road, you are not fully in control of the vehicle.
"It is one of those offenses that the person doing it most likely isn't a bad person. It is just the activity they are doing is bad and dangerous. That's what we want people to realize."
While the focus is on texting while driving, Butterworth pointed out that the legislation applies to all handheld electronic devices. It also applies to reading an email or text, not just sending one.
Pilot programs in Syracuse, NY and Hartford, CT demonstrated that increased law enforcement and high-profile public education campaigns can be effective in reducing distracted driving.
The programs were funded by the federal and state governments and used a media campaign entitled "Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other" which was similar to the national "Click It or Ticket" seat belt campaign.
The study showed a decline of one third in the use of handheld cell phones and texting and driving in Syracuse. The drop in texting in Hartford was nearly 75 percent.
"These findings show that strong laws, combined with highly-visible police enforcement, can significantly reduce dangerous texting and cell phone use behind the wheel," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood through a press release sent out Monday. "Based on these results, it is crystal clear that those who try to minimize this dangerous behavior are making a serious error in judgement, especially when half a million peole are injured and thousands more are killed in distracted driving accidents."
Updated with information from U.S. Department of Transportation.