Even for a state trooper, it’s not easy to spot drivers who are texting. Their smartphones are down 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 SUVs to better peer down at drivers’ hands, part of one of the nation’s most aggressive attacks on texting while driving that also includes steeper penalties and dozens of highway “texting zones,” where motorists can pull over to use their devices.
“Look at that,” Trooper Clayton Howell says, pulling alongside a black BMW while patrolling the highways north of New York City. “This guy’s looking down. I can see his thumb on the phone. I think we got him.”
After a quick wail of the siren and a flash of the tucked-away flashers, an accountant from the suburbs is pulled over and politely given a ticket.
New York is among 41 states that ban text messaging for all drivers and is among only 12 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.
With the tough new penalties came tougher enforcement. In a two-month crackdown this summer, troopers handed out 5,553 tickets for texting while driving, compared to 924 in the same period last year.
Howell’s SUV, called a CITE vehicle for Concealed Identity Traffic Enforcement, is designed to catch just such drivers. Gray in color, it swoops in undetected when Howell suspects a violation.
“You can see how oblivious they are to this vehicle,” Howell said as a woman holding a phone paid him no mind. “I’m right next to them, and they have no idea.”
The driver, a doctor, said she’d been running late and was on the phone to her office. It didn’t qualify as an emergency but she got off with a warning.
The accountant who was ticketed, Chris Pecchia, of Montrose, told Howell he hadn’t been texting but rather was looking at a map displayed on his phone. He was cited anyway, for driving while using a portable electronic device.
Pecchia said afterward: “I can’t look at a map? What’s the difference between looking at a paper map and looking at a map on the phone?” Still, he said, he understood why he was pulled over. He said he would never text while driving and has forbidden his 17-year-old daughter from doing so.
“I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt,” Howell said. “It’s my philosophy to educate, and when you pull somebody over and give them a warning, that’s a pretty good education.”