By JACOB FISCHLER
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- Getting caught driving while using a cell phone will now mean two points on your license.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles announced Monday that the points are being added to the offense, which is a traffic violation. The regulation takes effect Wednesday.
WEB EXTRA: Stay safe, sign our Pledge 2 Hang Up
"Distracted driving is one of the most serious dangers on our roadways today," said J. David Sampson, executive deputy DMV commissioner. "By strengthening the current law, our hope is that motorists will become even more aware of the potential consequences of their actions if they use a cell phone while driving."
Previously no points were given for the infraction. Points can lead to higher auto insurance costs and a suspension of a driver's license if a person gets 11 points within 18 months.
Talking without a hands-free accessory has been illegal in New York since 2001, when it was the first state in the nation to adopt such a rule.
Until now, though, the law was only enforced with a ticket and a fine. With the additional points punishment, the DMV is attempting to lower the number of distracted-driving incidents.
The new rule will make it the same number of points for texting while driving, though texting and driving comes with up to a $150 fine. The fine for talking while driving remains up to $100.
According to the DMV, driver distraction contributes to at least one out of every five crashes statewide. In 2009, nearly 5,500 deaths nationwide were attributed in part to driver distraction and more than 440,000 people were injured due to distracted drivers, the agency said.
"We applaud the DMV for instituting a points system for these violations," said Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA New York in a statement. "AAA believes points on licenses will make drivers more seriously obey the laws banning the dangerous practices of texting and using hand-held phones while driving."
A 2009 study by the Federal Highway Administration said that drivers who texted while driving were 23 times more likely to crash. The same study showed that talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving made drivers four times as likely to crash.
New York implemented a texting-while-driving ban in 2009.
Talking on a hands-free device remains legal because it can lead to far fewer compromising situations, DMV spokeswoman Jackie McGinnis explained.
"For one thing you're not going to drop anything," she said. "People who use a handheld device drive with one hand off the driver's wheel, whereas if you have a hands-free device you can use both hands."
The new points system, initially put up for public comment by the DMV in December, cites a study conducted by the Carnegie Melon Institute that said when driving and using a cell phone, brain activity related to driving is reduced by 37 percent.
The DMV has the power to change the amount of points for a violation whenever they want. They open most rule changes up for public comment as a courtesy. But no public comments were submitted for the rule change.