By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY -- Be aware if you text while driving: Police are watching and ticketing.
The number of tickets issued since New York toughened its texting-while-driving ban in July has skyrocketed, up 43 percent through mid-September compared to all of 2010, statistics obtained by Gannett's Albany Bureau show.
See a searchable county-by-county database of tickets written for texting while driving
In fact, the number of tickets issued to drivers texting behind the wheel shot up 72 percent outside New York City so far this year, with some large counties more than doubling the number of drivers they've nabbed, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
The spike comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo on July 12 signed into law legislation that allows police to pull over drivers specifically for texting. The law took effect immediately. The initial law in 2009 made texting a secondary infraction, meaning police could only issue a ticket if a driver was pulled over for another offense, such as erratic driving.
Police said the change has made a major difference.
"It's a great success story," said John Grebert, executive director for the New York Police Chiefs Association.
In August, the first full month the law was in effect, a record 1,082 tickets were issued statewide. Previously, the most was in April, when 689 tickets were issued. But those April numbers were skewed because Syracuse participated in a national pilot program to crack down on texting while driving that led to nearly half of the tickets.
"These statistics demonstrate the seriousness of this problem and the importance of this new law in fighting distracted driving," Cuomo said in a statement to Gannett. "I thank local and state law enforcement officers for their diligence in keeping our roadways safe and protecting New Yorkers."
A number of fatal crashes involving young adults in New York and the nation have been attributed to texting behind the wheel. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute report in 2009 found that drivers who texted were 23 times more likely to get in a crash than those who did not.
Police in New York said they regularly saw drivers who were texting, but couldn't pull people over for it unless they were committing another infraction.
Not anymore. Some law-enforcement officials said they've been able to set up traffic-enforcement programs to catch drivers, and the stings have been most effective when they use undercover vehicles.
Chemung County Sheriff Christopher Moss said they've incorporated texting-while-driving lookouts into their distracted-driving-enforcement programs funded through the state. The county also talks to students about the dangers of texting when driving.
A violation comes with a fine up to $150 and 3 points on a license -- the same as a speeding ticket. The law also requires distracted-driving curriculum for people seeking a license.
Outside New York City, the number of tickets issued for texting totaled 1,617 in 2010. It has jumped already to 2,777 tickets as of Sept. 17, the DMV reported.
Statewide, the total grew from 3,248 tickets in 2010 to 4,634 tickets so far this year. It grew 14 percent in New York City, up to 1,857 from 1,631 in 2010.
The number of tickets more than doubled in 33 counties, the records show. In Erie County, tickets issued jumped from 161 in 2010 to 343 this year. It went from 15 to 34 tickets in Chemung County; from 31 to 79 tickets in Dutchess County; and from 52 to 150 tickets in Monroe County.
It more than tripled in some counties: from 79 to 308 tickets in Suffolk County; from 20 to 71 tickets in Ulster County; and from 21 to 71 tickets in Rockland County.
"We're definitely out there enforcing it," said Dutchess County Lt. John Watterson. "It's a product of increased enforcement, an increased awareness of police. It's much easier to cite someone for the violation."
Gannett reported in April that few tickets had been issued for texting while driving since the initial law took effect in 2009 compared to the number issued for talking on a cell phone without a handheld device, a primary offense and a law since 2001.
Talking on a cell phone while driving is still a more common infraction, with 181,400 tickets issued so far this year and nearly 332,000 issued in 2010, records show.
But Scott Joslyn, chief of police service for the Erie County Sheriff's Department, said police often spot people texting behind the wheel and now can issue tickets.
"I think it's a little more prevalent than even the numbers show," he said. Because drivers are being stopped, the law has also led to more people being arrested or ticketed for other violations, such as having suspended or restricted licenses, Joslyn said.
Some law-enforcement officials equated the beefed-up enforcement on texting to when New York instituted its mandatory seat-belt law in 1984, which led to greater safety on the roads and more people aware of the need to buckle up.
"Any distraction that takes your eyes off the road, whether it be texting, on the cell phone, or doing any number of things in the vehicle, puts everyone on the road at risk, including the person driving," said Cpl. John Helfer, spokesman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Department.
Thirty-four states have banned text messaging while driving. New York's law does not include drivers using a handheld electronic device that is affixed to a surface or using a GPS device attached to the vehicle.
New York has had a number of fatal crashes attributed to texting behind the wheel.
In June 2007, five teenage girls from Perinton, Monroe County, died in a car crash linked to texting. A few months later, 20-year-old A.J. Larson of West Seneca, Erie County, died in a crash while sending a text message. In 2009, 22-year-old Brandie Conklin of Eden, Erie County, was text messaging when she fatally crashed into a truck.
Here are some of the findings on the increase in the number of texting-while-driving tickets issued in New York:
-- The number of tickets shot up 43 percent through mid-September compared to all of 2010, an increase from 3,248 tickets in 2010 to 4,634 tickets so far this year.
-- Outside New York City, the number of tickets issued for texting totaled 1,617 in 2010 and 2,777 tickets in 2011 as of Sept. 17, a 72 percent increase.
-- The number of tickets more than doubled in 33 counties, including in Chemung, Dutchess, Monroe and Erie, and more than tripled in some, including Rockland, Suffolk and Ulster.