Large Truck Accidents | Featured Articles
October 13 2002 - Driving While Distrtacted
Last Nov. 1, New York prohibited the use of hand-held cellphones while driving, eclipsing the local prohibitions that had gone into effect earlier that year, on Jan. 1 in Suffolk and on July 1 in Nassau. What has the law done to drivers like Janet Fisher of Oceanside? “I have a hands-free device but haven’t used it,” she said. Instead, Ms. Fisher relies on the beep of her pager to signal her to pull over to return a call. Like Ms. Fisher, other drivers have not gotten the hang of hands-free gadgets. The mechanics of plugging in headsets and speakerphone adapters has discouraged some drivers from making or receiving calls in the car.
Jon Cooper, the Suffolk County legislator who wrote that county’s pioneering law, said his concern about cellphones was prompted by an accident in Maryland three years ago involving an East Northport family returning from a Thanksgiving holiday. A driver distracted by a cellphone call swerved and hit the family’s car parked on the shoulder. “The parents were killed, the 11-year-old daughter was critically injured and the son saw the whole thing,” Mr. Cooper said. “He actually felt guilty because they had pulled aside so he could relieve himself.”
The statewide law, which carries a $100 fine and which superseded the local laws, has not persuaded all Long Islanders to hang up and drive. The Suffolk County Police Department has issued 2,951 cellphone tickets from Jan. 1, 2001, through Aug. 31, 2002. From July 2001 through mid-September 2002, the Nassau County Police Department has issued 6,055 tickets. Figures are not available for the number of tickets issued by state troopers and village police officers on Long Island. The State Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that 30,000 tickets have been issued statewide since the law took effect, but it does not have a geographical breakdown for the Island.
It’s difficult to determine if these numbers signify compliance by most or defiance by many. Sgt. Vincent Ward, who provided the Suffolk County statistics, said: “I’ve noticed people pulling over to the side of the road to use their cellphones, so I would take that to be a working law. I think that people are starting to get used to it now.”
The Department of Motor Vehicles accident form was revised in early 2002 to incorporate a section on drivers’ distraction from hand-held cellphones. But the police say that it is often difficult to prove that a driver was on the phone at the time of the accident. “However, phone records can be checked,” said Mr. Cooper, who added that the same records can also be used to prove a driver’s innocence.
Detective Lt. Kevin Smith said that the Nassau County police had recorded 38 accidents so far this year attributed to cellphone use, compared with only one in 2001 and one in 2000. “I think the number jumps so high because the ‘contributing factor’ section of the accident report now includes cellphone-specific causes,” he said. “Prior to this it would have been listed as ‘driver inattention’ or noted in the narrative section of the report.”
John Schreiber of Great Neck said that he has noticed many people disobeying the cellphone law as well as inattentive driving caused by other distractions. “I observe people reading, applying makeup, shaving, singing, conversing, eating, drinking, removing and inserting CD’s, rubbernecking, holding pets, etc., all while driving,” he said.
Matt Burns, a spokesman for the State Department of Motor Vehicles, likened the cellphone ban to another landmark: New York was the first state to enact a seat-belt law nearly 20 years ago. “Today we have better than 80 to 85 percent seat-belt usage,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s going to take some time to get everybody on board. If we can get one person to hang up the phone, potentially it’s saving a life.”
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