Feds try to curb distracted driving, target NY

Revving the drive to improve highway safety, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday announced twin pilot programs in New York and Connecticut to crack down on drivers texting and talking on cell phones.

"We know we've got to have good laws, but just as important you've got to have good enforcement," Lahood said at Syracuse University. "That will send a message in the community that we are not going to stand by and let people text and drive or use cell phones and drive."

The programs in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., are modeled after previous efforts to promote seat belts and curb drunken driving. Each city gets a $200,000 federal grant matched by $100,000 from the state.

Connecticut enacted a law banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving on Oct. 1, 2005. While the law allows adults to use hands-free devices, it bans new drivers, ages 16 and 17, from using the devices. Violators could face a license suspension of up to 30 days.

LaHood said Syracuse was chosen because of the good working relationship between law enforcement agencies.

The first police crackdowns will occur in Hartford, West Hartford and East Hartford between April 10 and April 16 and in Syracuse from April 8 to April 17. There will be three other crackdowns in each city over the next 12 months, and federal officials will then analyze the data with an eye toward creating a national program.

In New York, texting while driving is a secondary offense, which means that a person can't be pulled over solely for driving while texting - a texting while driving citation must be tacked on to another offense. Gov. David Paterson has introduced a bill that would make it a primary offense, which would allow police to pull over a person solely for driving while texting.

"We're going to take the handcuffs off the police officers," Paterson said. "This will be a plan that hopefully will be replicated all over the country."

National figures show that driver distraction is a contributing factor in 20 percent of crashes. As navigation systems, cell phones and mobile electronics have become ubiquitous in cars and trucks, safety advocates and the government have pushed for restrictions.

Department of Transportation figures show that nearly 6,000 people were killed and 515,000 injured in 2008 in crashes nationwide connected to driver distraction, often involving cell phones and other mobile devices.

At least 20 states and the District of Columbia already prohibit all drivers from texting behind the wheel, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. An additional nine states restrict texting by novice drivers.

According to New York State Department of Motor Vehicle records, 1.6 million tickets were issued in the state for cell phone use while driving between December 2001 and December 2008.

While LaHood was speaking, the Livingston County Sheriff's department was investigating the death of a 22-year-old college senior killed early Tuesday in a one-vehicle accident. The vehicle drifted off a highway and rolled over, and authorities believe the driver had been texting.

State police also are completing an investigation into the January death of the first female New York trooper to die while on duty. Jill Mattice, 31, was driving a cruiser back to the Oneonta barracks from her shift when she drifted into the oncoming lane and collided with a tractor-trailer.

State police already have ruled out any mechanical malfunction with her cruiser and are doing a forensic exam of her cell phone to determine whether there was any activity on the phone at the time of her death.