Some have called it a pragmatic approach. Others, namely the news satirists at The Onion, have mocked it. Whether visionary or absurd, the state of New York is adopting a sort of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude toward combating the deadly problem of distracted driving, establishing "texting zones" along its highways and other major thoroughfares for those electronic communications that just can't wait.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced the measure that will give motorists a pull-off area in which to park and use their mobile devices. According to a Sept. 23 news release from the New York Governor's Office, 91 texting zones initially will be designated across the state, identified by nearly 300 roadway signs. The zones will use existing infrastructure, including Park-n-Ride facilities, rest stops and parking areas along the New York State Thruway and state highways.
"With this new effort, we are sending a clear message to drivers that there is no excuse to take your hands off the wheel and eyes off the road because your text can wait until the next Texting Zone," Cuomo said in a statement.
The texting zones are just the latest effort in New York's ongoing crackdown on distracted driving. State police also have been using undercover enforcement vehicles — SUVs with higher-sitting platforms that allow officers a better visual vantage into vehicles in order to catch texters in the act. The state also has increased penalties for distracted driving. Police the past summer ratcheted up enforcement of distracted-driving laws nearly four times over, ticketing 21,580 drivers in 2013 compared with 5,208 during the same period the previous year.
These new pull-off areas and signage won't be free, of course, and perhaps the revenue from the tickets can help offset the costs.
New York isn't the only state getting serious about distracted driving. In August, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a statewide ban on using hand-held devices behind the wheel, joining more than a dozen other states with similar laws, according to the Chicago Tribune. Motorists are still permitted to use hands-free technology, but face fines of $75 for a first offense and $150 for subsequent offenses, and possible license suspension after three such violations.
Quinn also signed into law, effective Jan. 1, a measure that increases penalties for drivers who injure or kill others in crashes involving hand-held mobile devices. Offenders face a Class A misdemeanor, resulting in fines of up to $2,500 and less than a year in jail; drivers involved in a fatal accident face a Class 4 felony, carrying fines of up to $25,000 and three years' jail time.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,331 people were killed in 2011 in crashes involving distracted drivers, an increase from the previous year. Roughly 390,000 people were injured in distracted-driving crashes in 2011; 10 percent of injury crashes were caused by distracted driving, according to the NHTSA.