Ithaca police on distracted-driving enforcement patrol this week

April 12, 2014

The Ithaca Police Department says they'll be out in force over the next several days, watching for texting-while-driving violations and other forms of distracted driving. Like the patrols conducted in the fall, this enforcement campaign is funded by the New York State Police Traffic Services Grant.

New York State upped its penalties for a conviction of texting while driving last year. The infraction now carries a five-point license penalty, a mandatory 60-day license suspension, five points on the license, a fine of up to $150, and an $85 surcharge. 

"Mayor [Svante] Myrick and I fully understand the dangers associated with texting while driving," said Ithaca chief of police John R. Barber in a statement announcing this week's enforcement patrols. "Drivers who text while they drive are 23 times more likely to have an accident," adds the Mayor.

"Manipulating any handheld device is illegal," Ithaca Police Department public information officer Jamie Williamson told us in the fall. Exceptions to the law include using a hands-free phone, or a handheld phone or other device (such as a GPS) that's affixed to the vehicle, or use of a phone to "communicate an emergency to a police or fire department, a hospital or physician's office, or an ambulance corps," according to the state's distracted driving web page.

Viewing or taking images on a handheld electronic device; talking on a handheld phone; playing games; or sending, composing, browsing, or reading electronic information while holding an electronic device, whether on a web page, e-mail message, or text message, is illegal while driving. Commercial drivers are further prohibited from using a handheld device while their vehicle is temporarily stopped because of traffic, a stop sign or traffic light, or other momentary delays.

"Answering a phone call by pushing one button or initiating a phone call by using Siri on Apple phones or similar [voice control] programs on other phones is permitted," says Cornell University Police Department deputy chief David M. Honan, who tells us CUPD strictly enforces state laws "related to distracted driving, in addition to the laws regarding bicycles, pedestrians and skaters."

"The main intent of the cell phones laws in New York is to ensure that you are paying attention to your driving with your hands are on the wheel and eyes on the road," Deputy Chief Honan says. He adds that the state's general definition of "using" a device includes holding a mobile telephone to or near the user's ear; dialing or answering a mobile telephone by pressing more than a single button; or reaching for a mobile telephone in a manner that requires you to maneuver so that you're no longer in a seated driving position, restrained by a proper seat belt.

Governor Cuomo announced the "text stop" campaign last September. Photo provided.Governor Cuomo announced the "text stop" campaign last September. Photo provided.Last fall, many of New York's highway rest stops were relabeled as "texting zones," with the familiar blue highway signs touting not just how close the next gas station or fast food outlet is, but how soon the next chance to pull off the road for a quick text break will be. In all, there are 91 "text stops" along the New York State Thruway and other state and interstate highways.

Looking down at an electronic device to skim a text, check traffic reports, or scan a map can take your eyes off the road for as much as five seconds, enough time at highway speeds to travel the length of a football field.

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