Texting law frustrates Rochester-area law enforcement
Just weeks after five Fairport High School graduates were killed in a fiery car wreck in Bloomfield, state lawmakers were proposing legislation that would outlaw texting while driving, which police say may have been a factor in the fatal accident four years ago.
The bill, which outlawed the practice, hit the books on Nov. 1, 2009.
But in the 14 months that followed, the Greece Police Department, which serves a town of nearly 100,000 people, did not write a single ticket for texting while driving.
And according to public records requested by the Democrat and Chronicle, neither did the police departments of Gates, Irondequoit, Webster, Brockport or Ogden.
The Brighton Police Department wrote just three texting tickets during that span, and the New York State Police wrote just 40 of them in Monroe County in 2010, compared with more than 3,200 tickets for talking on a cellphone while driving.
The problem, police officers say, is that the law mandates "secondary enforcement," meaning that motorists cannot be pulled over and ticketed for texting unless they are committing another "primary" violation, such as speeding.
This means that a patrolling officer can literally pull alongside a driver and watch them send a text message, but then can't legally pull them over for doing so.
It's a technicality that has been frustrating law enforcement officers for the past year and a half.
"We've typically been a really strong cellphone and distracted driving enforcement agency," said Brighton Police Chief Mark Henderson, whose department gave out 476 tickets for talking on a cellphone while driving in 2010.
"Then you see that of all the hundreds of cellphone tickets written, there have only been three for texting. Obviously, that shows there's an issue with the law."
Gaye-Ann Dixon of Rochester, with State Trooper Robert Frost, uses a device that simulates texting and driving. She had an “accident.”
Death by distraction
As text messaging entered the mainstream, distracted driving accidents spiked. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 5,474 deaths and an additional 448,000 injuries in 2009 were the result of distracted driving, a blanket term which includes a number of ill-advised driving behaviors, the most prominent being cellphone use.
These distracted driving accidents accounted for 16 percent of fatal crashes in 2009, up from 10 percent in 2005.
In response, states began passing texting-while-driving bans. Today, 38 states including New York, plus the District of Columbia, now forbid the act.
But New York's law is so toothless that the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which assigns scores to each state's texting legislation, "rated New York as not even having a texting law," said Judith Stone, the Washington D.C.-based group's president.
"We decided we weren't even going to count laws of secondary enforcement," said Stone. "That's how weak they are."
Statistics from the New York State Police reinforce this notion, and show a similar ratio to the data from Monroe County: the state police gave only 615 texting-while-driving tickets throughout New York in 2010, compared with 38,460 tickets for talking on a cellphone while driving.
Such enforcement, some law enforcement officials say, is backwards.
While both acts increase the likelihood of a crash, texting while driving is far more dangerous than talking on a cellphone while driving, studies show.
But New York is the only state where talking on a cellphone while driving is a primary offense for all drivers, while texting is a secondary offense.
"It's hard enough to see (someone texting) when you're driving by," said Gates Police Lt. Jim VanBrederode, who said that most offenders have their phones in their laps. "And if you do happen to see them texting, you have to have something else to pull them over for."
With the restrictions on enforcement in place, some of the texting-while-driving tickets in the Rochester region have been given after an accident has already occurred — after a texting motorist has drifted into another lane and hit another car.
In some cases, it was too late to ticket for the offense; the driver had already been killed.
In November 2009, a woman was killed in Huron, Wayne County, when her vehicle crossed into the path of an oncoming truck. An investigation found that she was sending text messages just before the crash.
In April 2010, a State University College at Geneseo student died after drifting off the road in Leicester, Livingston County. Authorities said she, too, was likely texting at the time of the accident.
And while it was never confirmed who was sending or reading the messages, an investigation into the accident that claimed the lives of five Fairport High School students in 2007 found that the driver's cellphone had sent and received text messages moments before the crash. The Fairport Police Department was the only Monroe County agency that could not provide records of texting-while-driving tickets.
More dangerous than drinking and driving
The rise in texting-related accidents is unsurprising when the dangers are quantified.
A 2009 study by Car and Driver magazine presented drivers — some of whom were drunk, and some of whom were texting — with a randomly appearing stop light while they were traveling at 70 mph.
When texting, drivers needed, on average, 32 more feet to stop their cars than they did when they were drunk.
As each subsequent study showed similar findings and as texting-related accidents continued to climb, national advocacy groups formed, while Oprah Winfrey began a campaign online and on television to spread awareness of the dangers of texting while driving.
Such dangers are echoed by many drivers locally.
"They're a nuisance on the road," said Mike Castro, 22, of Irondequoit. "It drives people's attentions and causes problems, causes accidents. It's just a big distraction."
But many still text while driving, particularly younger drivers; 30 percent of drivers under the age of 30 admitted to sending text messages while driving, according to a poll from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Consumer Reports magazine, which was released in March.
“It’s so easy, and it’s so tempting,” said Ogden Police Chief Doug Nordquist. “The device will go off, and the urge to read that text is very large for some people.”
With enforcement proving extremely challenging, local agencies have been making other efforts to curb the practice.
Monroe County enacted a recent crackdown on distracted driving in the hopes of reducing injuries and raising awareness of the dangers of texting while driving.
And in Ontario County, a form on the sheriff’s website allows civilians to report driver cellphone usage; report a driver’s license plate, and the sheriff’s office will send a letter urging them to stop.
“Even if enforcement is difficult, we’re trying to come up with innovative ways to inform people that it is dangerous behavior,” said Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero.
Local campaigns can help curb the behavior to an extent.
But to make a sizable dent, said Stone, a combination of three factors is needed: widespread education of the dangers, a law forbidding the activity and strict enforcement of that law.
New York only has two out of three.
“Enforcement’s not the only way,” to prevent texting, said Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter, “but it helps more than anything else.”
Through a spokesman, Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard declined to comment.
Frustrated with the state’s slow pace in passing a texting-while-driving ban, Monroe County and Ontario County passed laws of their own in early 2009, banning the act and making it a primary offense.
But when the state’s law finally hit the books a few months later, the legislation superseded all of the local laws, and a dearth of texting-while-driving tickets has followed.
While the ineffectiveness of the secondary enforcement has come to the attention of state lawmakers, measures to amend the law have failed on a number of occasions.
Outspoken opposition to such a change has been difficult to find; instead, a stronger texting law appears to have simply fallen through Albany’s cracks. Proposed laws to make texting while driving a primary offense have passed both houses of the state Legislature — but not in the same year.
In 2008, an early version of the law passed in the state Senate, but died in the Assembly, said state Senator Joseph Robach, R-Greece.
Two years later, Governor David Paterson pushed for the change. This time the Assembly passed a bill, but matching legislation never made it to the floor in the Senate.
Now yet another bill is making its way through the state Senate.
Robach said this bill would be passed, but was less certain about its prospects in the Assembly, where a matching bill currently lies in the Assembly’s transportation committee.
Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester, chairman of the transportation committee, did not return a call seeking comment.
So while local law enforcement officials can’t control what goes on in Albany, they’re continuing to do what they can to educate drivers about the dangers.
Said Povero: “It’s this continued discussion that again will get the word out to everyone.”
Local law enforcement sounds off
"Everyone agrees that texting is more dangerous than cellphone use itself, but the way the law is written — making it a secondary offense — is really counterproductive when it comes to enforcing it."
Greece Police Chief Todd Baxter
"We're finding that it is becoming a very, very serious issue, and we're finding it is the (cause) of some accidents. Any law should come under review when the results can yield such dangerous circumstances."
Ogden Police Chief Doug Nordquist
"They need to re-look at that and recognize that if police officers are going to have an impact on reducing (texting while driving), they've got to be able to enforce it like any other traffic offense."
Gates Police Chief David DiCaro
"A person talking on their phone can be issued a ticket, but a person texting cannot be issued a ticket. Is there a disparity in the law? Yes, there is. Should it be corrected? Yes, it should."
Brighton Police Chief Mark Henderson
"We need to continue to emphasize to legislators that texting while driving is growing in epidemic proportions. Law enforcement and sheriffs in general continue to support enhancing New York's law."
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero
From November 2009 through 2010, only 58 tickets were given in Monroe County and Victor for texting while driving, compared with more than 6,000 tickets for talking on a cellphone while driving.
The texting law mandates secondary enforcement, which requires a police officer to spot a second violation before pulling a driver over.
New York is the only state where talking on a cellphone while driving is a primary offense for all drivers, while texting is a secondary offense.
Distracted driving accidents accounted for 16 percent of all vehicular fatalities in 2009, up from 10 percent in 2005.