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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara
"Are you getting the message?"
ALBANY, June 9 -- Ironically, at a time when we’re told time and again that modern technology has done wonders for our ability to communicate, it’s never been harder for at least one message to break through and sink in.
That’s about the most straightforward explanation for why New York State has seen fit to take steps in recent days to significantly increase the penalties for texting and driving. That’s especially the case for young drivers who now face significantly stricter penalties that we hope will be stronger deterrents and the way to reach every young driver who isn’t getting the message: driving while talking or texting on a cell phone -- or even now, unbelievably, browsing the Web on a smart phone – puts your life and the lives of others smack in harm’s way.
Sadly, even in the face of figures like those from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that more than 15 people are killed and over 1,200 people injured every day in distracted driving accidents, there’s just no denying that the message isn’t getting through.
And that’s despite efforts which have kept New York State at the forefront of having some of the toughest anti-distracted-driving laws in America. In 2011, I strongly supported the enactment of legislation to strengthen New York’s laws by elevating texting-while-driving offenses from a secondary to a primary violation, thereby making it easier for police officers to target them. The penalty for using a cell phone while driving was also increased from two to three points on a driver's license.
Since then, according to the New York State Police, there’s been a huge increase in the number of tickets issued. Strikingly, between 2011 and 2012, the number of tickets issued for texting while driving increased 234 percent while, during the same time period, DWI arrests decreased by 4 percent.
The mounting evidence has led many transportation safety experts to conclude that distracted driving has become an epidemic across the nation.
So we know that ticketing has skyrocketed. We know that public awareness and education efforts have never been more widespread. The state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), for example, now includes additional training for new drivers as part of the enhanced effort to deter distracted driving. The DMV provides educational resources for parents and teens to help them understand the danger, which you can find online at: http://www.safeny.ny.gov/phon-ndx.htm
Yet there’s been no corresponding drop in distracted drivers. Federal data shows 16,000 deaths nationwide due to texting while driving. Other studies have shown that drivers are 23 percent more likely to be involved in a crash while text messaging. Recent research by the Pediatric Academic Societies revealed that 43 percent of teenage drivers admit they regularly text while driving.
The Senate Transportation Committee, on which I serve as a member, held a public hearing last year to explore if New York’s existing laws could be strengthened, enforcement enhanced or driver education curriculums improved to do a better job of reaching young drivers. The committee heard testimony from a top national transportation safety official who highlighted research showing the “increasing use” of handheld devices by motorists, especially young drivers. That research was the basis for the call by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in December 2011 for an all-out, nationwide ban on driving while texting or talking on the phone.
As a result, this year, we’re back to work on delivering the message. This year’s state budget increased the fines for distracted driving to a maximum of $400. Governor Cuomo recently directed the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to implement tougher penalties for texting-while-driving for all drivers, effective immediately, including increasing the penalty on an individual’s driving record from 3 to 5 points. The governor also directed the State Police to step up enforcement.
Late last week both houses of the Legislature approved and Governor Cuomo will sign into law legislation targeting young and new drivers with stricter penalties, specifically:
-- teens with a junior driver’s license who commit a distracted driving offense will have their license suspended for 60 days per violation;
-- teens and other newly-licensed drivers who commit an offense within the first six months of receiving their regular driver’s license will face a 60-day license suspension for their first offense; and
-- those who commit subsequent offenses within six months of having their license restored would face a six-month suspension.
Let’s hope and pray that the message gets through this time, especially with the onset of another summer driving season. In this so-called age of enhanced communication, the message needs to be clear for every motorist, with a special emphasis on young drivers: Keep your eyes on the road. Keep your hands on the wheel. Keep your mind on driving.
Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara
Schuyler County Officials
Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Thomas Gifford, Doris Karius, Glenn Larison
Bottom row: Michael A. Yuhasz, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field
Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687
Michael A. Yuhasz, 535-4967
Doris L. Karius, 546-5544
Barbara Halpin, 594-3683
Glenn R. Larison, 594-3385
Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517
Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen 481-0482
Stewart Field, Watkins Glen 535-2335
County Clerk: Linda Compton, 535-8133
Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222
Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222
County Treasurer: Margaret Starbuck, 535-8181
District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383
State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County
Sen. Charles E. Schumer
United States Senate
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senate
State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)
Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Assemblyman Christopher Friend --
Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869