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Sharp rise in texting while driving tickets in NY State in 2013

About 55,000 Motorists cited for texting while driving in NYS last year.
Dramatic rise in number of tickets issued in New York State in 2013

ALBANY, NY - If you text and drive, you're increasingly likely to get ticketed.

With stronger laws and greater enforcement, texting-while-driving tickets in New York leaped 82 percent in 2013 compared to 2012, records show. Outside New York City, the increase was 89 percent.

In 26 of New York's 62 counties, the number of texting tickets more the doubled over the past year.

Police issued roughly 55,000 texting tickets statewide in 2013, up from about 30,000 in 2012.

WEB EXTRA: Database Of Tickets Issued In Each County In NYS.

NY State Police Trooper Victor Morales says it's much like the spike you historically saw in tickets issued for cell phone use, and seat belt use, when those laws were first put in place.

"Enforcement is one of the best ways to try and prove a point or get a point home," Morales told WGRZ-TV. "But if people started doing their own research, and started looking into how many people are actually injured, not just killed but how many people are injured a year due to distractions, they'd be very surprised when you look at over 400,000 people being injured in car accidents because of distracted driving."

Morales says the problem is more prevalent among younger drivers, who've literally grown up with a cell in their hand, and the misguided belief among some that they can master texting while driving with no effect on their ability behind the wheel ...or that they won't get caught.

"They may think they have mastered texting, but they haven't even mastered driving ...then you add in that extra element of distraction," he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed this month to suspend licenses for one year of people under 21 caught texting behind the wheel. It's currently six months.

"Too many times we have witnessed the tragedy that comes as a result of texting while driving," Cuomo said in a statement to Gannett's Albany Bureau. "The continued vigilance against this destructive behavior should send a resounding message to all drivers: Keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. I thank the State Police and local law enforcement for their dedication to making this a safer New York."

The figures reviewed by Gannett's Albany Bureau from the state Department of Motor Vehicles also showed the changing times: As texting tickets have soared, tickets for talking on a cell phone have dropped in each of the past five years.

Tickets for cell phone use still outpace texting tickets. Police last year issued nearly 207,000 tickets for using a cell phone while driving, but down from 217,000 in 2012, or nearly 5 percent. In 2009, police issued 342,000 cell-phone tickets.

Police said texting-while-driving is a troubling trend among young people.

Broome County Sheriff David Harder said police constantly spot young drivers texting near their headquarters, which is close to Binghamton University. Texting tickets in the county grew from 168 to 355 over the past year.

"You're trying to get the message through to these young people, and it just doesn't work," Harder said.

Harder and other sheriffs said they have boosted enforcement of texting while driving, in part through state aid available for distracted-driving initiatives. They are using tall SUVs and finding high locations to stake out traffic as way to peer down on drivers behind the wheel.

Police said that it's harder to catch those who are texting while driving than drivers who have their cell phones to their ears.

New York has had a number of fatal crashes involving teenagers and texting, including ones near Rochester, Buffalo and in Westchester.

Westchester County issued 2,000 texting tickets in 2013, second outside New York City to Suffolk County, and double the amount in 2012. Monroe County ranked third at nearly 2,000, slightly ahead of Erie County and up 77 percent from 2012.

"The talking is a distracted-driving offense because people's attention is diverted, but generally their eyes stay on the road," said Kieran O'Leary, Westchester County Police Department spokesman. "The texting is particularly dangerous because it does require the person who is manipulating a keyboard and typing a message to take their eyes off the road."

Between 2012 and 2013, the number of texting tickets doubled in Dutchess County from 419 to 854 and went from 193 to 494 in Rockland County.

The number of tickets increased 71 percent in Tompkins County, from 147 to 252, and 54 percent in Chemung County, from 107 to 165.

New York implemented a texting-while-driving ban in 2009. But it was a weak law and only allowed a ticket to be issued as a secondary offense - meaning police would first have to pull someone over for a different infraction.

Cuomo and the state Legislature changed the law to a primary offense in 2011, and the number of tickets has soared. The state also increased the number of points on a license for the charge from two to three, and last year it was increased to five points.

Also, the conviction rate has increased.

Gannett's Albany Bureau reported last June that only 44 percent of the texting tickets in New York had led to convictions. The cases were either backlogged, tossed or pleaded down to a lesser charge.

But in 2012, the most recent data available, the conviction rate was 66 percent, the Department of Motor Vehicles said. The conviction rate for cell-phone use while driving was 73 percent.

The Governors Highway Safety Association praised New York for becoming a leader in cracking on down on distracted driving.

"It sends a message to everybody in the state that this is serious, and there are consequences if you violate this law," said Jonathan Adkins, the group's deputy executive director.

New York, in fact, would have the toughest texting-while-driving penalties in the nation if the state Legislature approves Cuomo's latest proposal to strip drivers under age 21 of their licenses for one year if they are caught.

Cuomo, who has three teenaged daughters, has regularly warned about the dangers of texting behind the wheel. He recently announced texting stops along the state Thruway to encourage people to pull over if they need to use their phones.

More than 3,000 annual teen deaths nationwide are caused by texting while driving and 300,000 injuries, a report in May by the Cohen Children's Medical Center on Long Island found.

"If a teenager is caught texting while driving, they should lose their license for one year," Cuomo said in his address. "Let them learn this lesson. They are our sons and our daughters and let's save lives."

This story includes reporting by Joseph Spector, of the Gannett Albany Bureau.

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