NY imposes stiffest ban on drivers using handheld phones

NEW YORK Wed Feb 16, 2011 1:02pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The nation's toughest ban on drivers gabbing on handheld cell phones took effect on Wednesday in New York, where violators now face penalty points on their licenses as well as hefty fines.

The crackdown is meant to reduce the number of crashes tied to "distracted driving," said state transportation officials.

The punishment of a $100 fine and a two-point penalty can affect auto insurance rates and add up to a suspended license, said Jackie McGinnis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Drivers who accumulate 11 points in 18 months lose their licenses temporarily.

"By strengthening the current law, our hope is that motorists will become even more aware of the potential consequences of their actions if they use a cell phone while driving," said DMV Executive Deputy Commissioner J. David Sampson.

But the stiffer penalty may have no effect other than a quieter ride, according to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group funded by the auto insurance industry.

"So far, we are seeing no effect on crashes from bans on hand-held phones and texting," said Russ Rader, IIHS spokesman.

Since 2001, when New York instituted the nation's first law against drivers using handheld cell phones, there has been no decline in the number of crashes, said Rader.

"Distracted driving didn't appear suddenly because of cell phone use," Rader said.

"Drivers get distracted for lots of reasons, whether it's putting on makeup or reaching in back seat for a CD, fiddling with the radio or just day dreaming. That leads to crashes."

Distracted driving plays a role in one in five crashes, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In 2009, New York banned drivers from texting, imposing a $150 fine and a two-point penalty.

The DMV said in 2009 there were 342,564 tickets issued in New York for cell phone violations.

The new law affects all drivers on New York roads.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)

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