By Theresa Juva-Brown
The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News
SOMERS, N.Y. -- Undercover patrols in New York to catch drivers caught texting are part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's new campaign to crack down on distracted drivers across the state.
It didn't take long for Trooper Matthew Yorke to spot a driver with a cellphone in hand.
Just minutes into a recent patrol in an unmarked SUV, Yorke perked up as he looked over at a car in the next lane.
The driver of the blue Hyundai Elantra was Yorke's first driver of the day to get nabbed using an electronic device behind the wheel.
Within about a half-hour, Yorke issued tickets to three drivers he spotted either fiddling with a cellphone or talking on it. One driver was clearly holding a smartphone in front of him and tapping away as he steered his black pickup.
"He was also swerving in and out the lane, which initially caught my attention," Yorke said.
In every case, the drivers admitted they were using their phones and didn't try to get out of the ticket, he said.
"I find that generally people don't dispute it," the trooper said. "They think they are a better driver than others on the road, and they can engage in that type of activity."
In addition to more troopers on the road, the effort includes stiffer penalties for drivers convicted of using portable electronic devices or talking on the phone behind the wheel.
First-time offenders in New York now get slapped with five points on their licenses - up from three points - and face fines up to $150. Fines for repeat offenders can be as high as $400. The law also extends license suspension and revocation periods for new and teen drivers caught using cellphones.
"It took a long time for us to get intoxicated driving to be socially unacceptable and we're in the early stages of that with distracted driving," said New York state police spokesman Sgt. Terry McDonnell.
Since 2001, New York law has prohibited motorists from talking on handheld phones. The evolution of smartphones has led to a ban on any type of portable electronic use while driving, including texting, checking e-mail or punching directions into a GPS unit.
People don't realize that using an electronic device while driving is just as dangerous as drinking and driving, McDonnell said.
"The behaviors are very much the same when people are intoxicated: They are weaving in the lane. They are slow to react," he said. "You are somewhere else mentally."
The federal government doesn't specifically track texting-related crashes. But texting while driving is considered the most dangerous form of distraction because it involves the eyes, the hands and the mind.
According to a survey this year by AT&T of 1,011 adult drivers, almost half of all adults admit to texting while driving, compared with 43% of teenagers.
This follows an extensive national campaign against distracted driving: 39 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving for all drivers, and an additional five states prohibit the practice for new drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 31% of drivers in the U.S. reported texting or e-mailing while driving.
Each day, an average of more than nine people are killed and more than 1,060 injured in crashes caused by distracted driving, according to the CDC. In 2011, 3,331 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver, up from 3,267 in 2010, according to the Department of Transportation.
Nick Ulaj of Somers said he was stuck in traffic in Bedford, N.Y., last year when he checked his e-mail on his Blackberry. A police officer in a marked car saw him and pulled him over.
Though Ulaj, 40, ultimately got the ticket dismissed, he acknowledged that mixing cellphones and driving is "a dangerous combination."
"I use the Bluetooth for voice (calls)," he said of an earpiece. "I try not to handle the phone when driving (but) it's very difficult at times."
McDonnell argued that society has become obsessed with electronic devices. Drivers can use smartphone apps that send out an automatic reply to text messages while they are behind the wheel, but many refuse.
"People are so engrossed - they can't put it down," he said. "Every time it rings or beeps, they have to respond to it."
But not everyone is convinced that tough laws and penalties for cellphone use will solve the distracted-driving problem.
"If we need specific laws to control the use of mobile devices while driving, is the next step legislation to button up passengers so that they can't talk or otherwise distract the driver?" Gary Biller, president of National Motorists Association, a driver advocacy group, said in an e-mail.
He added: "The NMA would rather see much of the money being spent on police spying campaigns and other heavy-handed enforcement actions be redirected to robust driver education programs that teach safe driving skills, the dangers of distracted driving, and the importance of minimizing those distractions."
Yorke said in many cases, people will admit the texting was not an emergency situation. Still, they take their chances and use their phones anyway.
"To answer a text as soon as you receive it, it's not worth it," Yorke said.
Contributing: Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News