New York promotes 'texting zones' where chatty drivers can park
By Tina Susman
EW YORK (MCT) Can't wait to respond to the latest text from your BFF?
NBD no big deal. At least, that's true if you're driving through New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced measures aimed at drivers haunted by the sound of unanswered cellphone rings and dings. New highway signs will say: "It can wait: Text stop 5 miles."
Drivers won't be steered to new pullout spots; the so-called "texting zones" will be in existing rest stops and parking areas. But Cuomo, who recently stiffened penalties for distracted driving, said the signs will help change motorists' behavior by reminding them that relief from the digital wilderness is just a few minutes down the road.
"You can come up with creative ways to remind people and make it easy for people, and that is what today is about," Cuomo said as he announced about 300 new signs at one of the designated rest stops/texting zones.
This year, New York increased penalties for motorists caught using hand-held cellphones to talk or text. Now, drivers can get five penalty points added to their records, rather than the previous three, and face a $150 fine.
In addition, the state conducted a summer crackdown on distracted drivers. State police Superintendent Joseph A. D'Amico, who appeared with Cuomo at Monday's announcement, said the number of tickets issued to distracted drivers during the July 4-Sept. 2 crackdown had more than quadrupled compared with the same period in 2012.
During that period last year, officers wrote 5,208 such tickets, D'Amico said. This year, the total was 21,580.
One federal study says that in 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, compared with 3,267 in 2010.
Statistics in various studies differ, but one thing is clear: The number of people using mobile devices while driving is increasing.
"We have three times more distracted-driving incidents than we had five years ago," said Cuomo, adding that there are now more traffic fatalities blamed on distracted drivers than on drunk drivers. He attributed the shift to more young people who grow up "attached, affixed to the electronic device."
"They start driving … and it's a dangerous combination," said Cuomo, who acknowledged that it could be a hard sell getting young drivers to wait just five miles or five minutes until they reach a rest stop to answer their phones or look at the incoming text messages.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association in Washington, which tracks highway legislation nationwide, at least 41 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving. At least 12 states plus D.C. prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cellphones while driving.
Such changes are relatively recent, as Pattie Rakvica of Ballston Spa, N.Y., noted at Monday's event. Rakvica suffered a broken nose and neck and a traumatic brain injury in July 2009 when she was hit by an SUV traveling about 60 miles per hour.
"The woman who was driving was clearly distracted," said Rakvica, who said she required months of therapy and had to learn to speak again. The woman who hit her received "a slap" on the wrist because of the lax laws in effect at the time, Rakvica said.
In an unusual case to emerge from the texting-while-driving trend, a New Jersey appeals court ruled last month that someone could be held responsible for an accident that happened miles away if they texted a driver involved in a crash.
The ruling stemmed from a 2009 crash that severely injured a couple whose motorcycle was hit by an 18-year-old driving a pickup truck. The couple sued the driver's friend, arguing that she was "electronically present" because she texted him.
Texting has also been blamed for a rise in pedestrian deaths. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last month that "distracted walking" could have contributed to a rise in pedestrians dying in traffic crashes between 2009 and 2011.
The increase followed decades of fewer pedestrian deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which said 4,432 pedestrians died in 2011. In 2009, 4,109 died.
Jonathan Adkins, the deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said he didn't know of any other states posting "texting zone" signs along highways. "We think it is innovative and complements what the state is doing to enforce their tough distracted-driving laws," he said of New York's move.
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