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Despite increase in fines, teens still drive and text

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In the five seconds it takes to read a text while driving 55 miles per hour, a driver will travel the length of a football field — without looking at the road.

Yet texting behind the wheel is a bad habit that many teens and twenty-somethings like Zachary T. Pitts, Theresa, simply cannot shake.

Despite the flashing signs on state highways notifying drivers of the increased penalties if caught, the 18-year-old Jefferson Community College student says he is not the only one.

“I still text and drive,” he said. “I do it all the time. I’m just more careful.”

In an effort to get drivers to put away their phones when they drive, the state has sharply hiked the penalties for texters, who now are slapped with a $150 fine and get a five-point offense on their license if they are caught.

That’s nearly half of the 11 points it takes for a driver’s license to be suspended, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

For those with a junior operators license, a driving-while-texting violation results in a six-month suspension.

Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau said the worst offenders are between the ages of 18 and 25 years old.

“It has increased as one of our main problems,” he said.

According to a news release from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, there was a 365 percent increase in the number of tickets issued in New York this summer for distracted driving — 21,580 — compared to last summer’s 5,208.

And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine people die every day from distracted driving.

Mr. Pitts and fellow JCC student Tyler M. John, 17, both have known people who have died after answering a text.

“I have checked my phone, but I don’t do it often. Just to change a song,” said Mr. John, Philadelphia. “I’d just be too scared to die.”

For Mr. Pitts, sending a text or checking his phone while he drives is less about the dangerous aspects.

“It’s just a bad habit,” Mr. Pitts said. “It’s just having your phone there and needing to check it.”

He said that anyone who uses their phone while driving is not likely to stop because of the law.

the problem grows

Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties’ sheriff’s departments do not keep track of the number of distracted-driving tickets issued but say they have observed the number has gone up in recent months.

“It’s something that’s a concern of ours,” St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said. “The changes in law and the increase in penalty are something that we support. We think it’s something that parents should be talking to their teen drivers about, but it’s not just the teen drivers. Many adults are texting on their way to and from work.”

Deputies and troopers in marked and unmarked patrol cars have been instructed to be especially vigilant for those texting behind the wheel.

“We try to have two checkpoints a week,” said Watertown State Police Sgt. Robert J. Simpson. “The slick-top (marked car with no light bar on top) is out daily looking for violators.”

Like Sheriff Wells, he supports the increased fine. The distraction keeps eyes off of a pedestrian or animal crossing the road ahead or a car that had to stop suddenly, he said.

“The big thing is that it’s a distraction from the roadway,” he said. “If you’re looking down at your phone for even a few seconds, you’re traveling all that distance without looking at the roadway.”

Aware of the danger, but...

State University of New York Canton junior Daniela M. Odle, Heuvelton, said she learned the dangers of texting early on and hasn’t tried it since.

“When I first got my license, I did it once or twice, and I ended up in the wrong lane of traffic,” she said.

According to the DMV, people in the habit of texting while driving spend about 10 percent of their driving time outside of their lane.

Some have never been given a chance to make it a habit.

Watertown High School senior Johanna L. Capone, 17, keeps her phone out of reach while she is in her car because of a promise she made to her parents.

“It’s always in the back seat,” she said. “As long as I was driving their car, it was their rule that I had to have my phone in the back seat.”

For those like Mr. Pitts, however, the temptation to check their phone when a friend’s text buzzes in outweighs the risks.

Aubree M. Stahler occasionally checks her phone while driving, as do many of her fellow students at SUNY Potsdam. But then she sees the televised public service messages, with teary-eyed family members describing the last moments of a young person who died because of texting while driving.

The DMV says just reaching for a cellphone makes a driver 1.4 times more likely to crash. Dialing a number doubles the risk.

“It kind of terrifies me,” the Rochester native said. “I don’t want to be that person, where the last text your friend gets is right before your car gets wrapped around a tree.”

Although she hasn’t kicked her occasional texting-while-driving habit, she believes the strict penalties for those caught are fair and may help decrease fatal accidents.

“I don’t think it’s excessive at all,” she said.

It is a common theme with students, who fess up to checking their phone behind the wheel but still support strict penalties for those who are caught.

“People should be punished,” said 17-year-old Alexandra K. Wolsifer, Watertown. “It’s just like drinking and driving.”

She said she does not send texts while driving but admitted she’s guilty of making calls or checking her phone.

“I keep my phone in my cup holder so I can see when I get a message, but I don’t text and drive,” she said.

The $50 fine increase has made her more careful about checking it, however.

“I’m checking less now,” she said. “My phone flashes colors when I get a text, but I don’t do it at night, ever, because it’s hard to see.”

Her mom, Tracy A. Wolsifer, said her children are not supposed to text while driving. Despite the rule, she said, she has been worried about the consequences ever since cellphones started offering texting services.

“I know they’ve done it a few times,” she said. “They know I won’t pay for their insurance if they do.”

Andrew D. Swords, another SUNY Potsdam student, said he occasionally texts behind the wheel, but not regularly.

“I think a few here and there is not a bad thing, as long as you’re not starting a whole conversation,” he said.

Despite this belief, he also supports the strict state laws.

“I think they’re pretty fair,” the sophomore from Carthage said. “I knew a kid who was texting all the time and ran into a light pole. That could have been someone else.”

death by distraction
death by distraction
Here are some statistics on the dangers of distracted driving, from the U.S. Department of Transportation:
• In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, compared to 3,267 in 2010. An additional, 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, compared to 416,000 injured in 2010. n 10% of injury crashes in 2011 were reported as distraction-affected crashes. n As of December 2012, 171.3 billion text messages were sent in the US every month. n 11% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted. n For drivers 15-19 years old involved in fatal crashes, 21 percent of the distracted drivers were distracted by the use of cell phones. n At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. n Engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times. n Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent, at 55 mph, of driving the length of an entire football field, blind. n Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use. n A quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20 percent of teens and 10 percent of parents admit that they have extended, multi-message text conversations while driving.
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