ALBANY — New York this week outlawed texting or talking on handheld cellphones by commercial drivers at stoplights or in traffic jams, restrictions that don’t apply to other drivers.
The law that took effect Monday brings the state into line with federal regulations for interstate trucking effective in 2012. Federal penalties range up to $2,750 for drivers and $11,000 for their employers.
New York fines range from $50 to $150 for a first offense. All states that issue commercial driver licenses are required by federal law to pass similar restrictions on intrastate trucking by the end of next year.
“Distracted drivers endanger every person on the road,” said state Sen. Charles Fuschillo, a Long Island Republican. He said the new law closes a loophole that should be closed for everyone.
The New York Senate approved a bill in June that would have prohibited all drivers from using cellphones or texting at stoplights or in stalled traffic. The Assembly did not pass the measure.
Trucking association officials said they back measures that promote safety. Commercial drivers can still use hands-free phones, as well as two-way or CB radios, even though they require one hand to operate.
So-called distracted driving, including using handheld mobile phones or other electronic devices, was blamed in 153 fatal New York crashes last year.
“Safety on the roadways is our top priority,” said Karin White, deputy director of the New York State Motor Truck Association with 800 member companies. “Commercial motor vehicles tend to be incredibly safe anyhow.”
At the American Trucking Associations, Rob Abbott, vice president for safety policy, said the federal rules don’t prohibit drivers from reaching for items in the cab like the windshield defroster, radio dial or Citizens band radio, which he said some truckers are still using.
The federal rules followed Virginia Tech Transportation Institute research, which showed texting making the driver’s accident risk 23 times greater, while talking on a handheld phone raises it “slightly” and CB use “actually shows an improvement,” Abbott said. He suggested that last point wasn’t a cause but a correlation, indicating something about drivers who use CB radios.
In New York, the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee reported inattention/distraction as consistently the most frequently reported driver factor in fatal and personal injury crashes, accounting for 21 percent in 2011.
Failure to yield the right-of-way accounted for 17.5 percent; following too closely, 17.7 percent; and driving at an unsafe speed, 10.9 percent. All three are considered forms of aggressive driving.
Last year, 49 percent of drivers reported in a survey that they send or receive text messages while driving, nearly two-thirds said they talk on cellphones while driving and more than two-thirds thought that cellphone use impairs the ability to drive safely “a great deal,” according to the committee.
Police statewide issued about 4 million tickets annually from 2007 to 2010 and 3.7 million in 2011.
State Police reported increased enforcement and issuing 21,580 tickets for distracted driving this summer, including talking or texting on a cellphone, compared with 5,208 tickets a year earlier.
Maj. Martin Hansen said the agency would like to see the cellphone and texting prohibition extended to all drivers stopped at lights or in stalled traffic. “Once that light turns green, a lot of people aren’t hanging up,” he said.
Albany defense attorney Lincy Jacob, a former prosecutor, noted that a violation now carries five license points, the same as reckless driving. Three tickets within 18 months can mean license suspension.
For a first offense, she said she would seek a plea agreement with no points. The violation, with no plea bargain, carries points as well as a fine.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize, just taking a plea (of guilty), although it might be admirable, they don’t realize it is five points,” she said.