MOUNT PLEASANT, N.Y.
- Even for a police officer, it's not easy to spot drivers who are texting. Their smartphones are on their laps, not at their ears. And they're probably not moving their lips.
That's why New York has given state police 32 tall, unmarked Chevrolet Tahoe SUVs to better peer down at drivers' hands, a move that's being closely watched by other jurisdictions and part of one of the nation's most aggressive attacks on texting while driving.
The high vantage point in the Tahoes helps troopers see drivers' hands, even if they're down on their laps, pushing smartphone buttons.
The SUVx, called a CITE vehicle for Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement, is designed to catch just such drivers. Mousy grey in colour, it swoops in undetected when Howell suspects a violation.
"You can see how oblivious they are to this vehicle," police officer Clayton Howell said as a woman holding a phone paid him no mind. "I'm right next to them, and they have no idea."
New York bans texting for all drivers and is among only 12 states that prohibit using hand-held cellphones. The state this year stiffened penalties for motorists caught using hand-held devices to talk or text, increasing penalty points on the driving record from three to five, along with tickets that carry fines of up to $200.
In New York's recent push, 91 existing rest areas and turnoffs on the state Thruway and other highways have been rebranded "Texting Zones," some advertised with blue signs declaring "It can wait. Text stop 5 miles."
"To our knowledge, New York is the first," Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, said of the texting turnoffs. "It's an intriguing approach and one that we think will pay dividends and be duplicated in other states."
A Virginia Tech study that found a texting driver is 23 times more likely to be in a collision and takes his eyes off the road for five seconds — more than the length of a football field at highway speed.
It's a particular worry as teens who grew up with their hand on the text button come of driving age.
Among the drivers pulled over by Howell were a man who said he hadn't been texting but rather was looking at a map displayed on his phone (hwas cited anyway, for driving while using a portable electronic device) and a woman who was driving with earbuds in both ears. Only one earbud is permitted while driving.