NEW YORK—In 1984 Gov. Mario Cuomo enacted a law requiring New Yorkers to wear seat belts. It was not well received at the time, with many people claiming it was intruding on their lives, but today it is common practice and it has been proven to save lives.
Nearly 30 years later, Gov. Mario Cuomo’s son, current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is taking on the next vehicle safety challenge: texting while driving
On May 31, while introducing tougher penalties for drivers caught texting while driving, Cuomo spoke of the tough lessons Americans have faced and overcome when dealing with the consequences of being distracted in an automobile. Be it requiring seat belts or bringing in check points to curb drinking and driving, lawmakers have stepped in to bridge the gap to safety.
“The bad news is, we are going to have to go through that experience with texting while driving—and we are at the very beginning of it,” Cuomo said from the Javits Center in New York. “And the numbers are not good. They show we are actually going the other way.”
In 2011 in New York State, 25,165 drivers were injured or killed in accidents involving distracted driving, compared to 4,628 injuries or deaths caused by alcohol-related driving.
In the summer of that same year, Cuomo put a law into place which docks drivers three points from their license if caught texting while driving. On Friday, he increased the penalty to five points.
If a driver is penalized more than 11 points in an 18-month period, his or her license will be suspended. A driver with more points can expect difficulty getting insurance, as well as higher insurance rates.
The texting while driving law only applies while the vehicle is moving. A driver can text while stopped at a red light, or at a stop sign.
The texting while driving phenomenon is relatively new, largely due to the explosion of smart phones on the market. The problem is especially prevalent with younger drivers.
“The lack of experience puts you at risk,” Cuomo said. “The unfortunate combination is the inexperience and the fearlessness. When you are young, you literally don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know the risk you are taking.”
Ben Lieberman, co-chair of Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORC), shared his story of personal loss at Cuomo’s announcement. Lieberman’s son Evan was tragically killed on June 16, 2011 when a distracted driver slammed into the car he was riding in.
Evan Lieberman fought for over a month before succumbing to his injuries. “On the 32nd day, right in front of our eyes, we lost him,” his father said.
Lieberman created DORC to inform people that looking down at a smartphone for a few second can be life changing. Drivers attending to texts take their eyes off the road an average of 4.6 seconds, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. For a car traveling 55 mph, that is the equivalent of a driver looking away from the road for the length of a football field.
“It is scary how addicted—the younger generations are so addicted to their cell phones,” Lieberman said. “Drivers need to worry about the lives that are in their hands and not the cell phone in their hands.”
Cuomo hopes to see increased penalties for young drivers, in addition to the increased point deduction. He proposed legislation which would parallel the penalties for speeding or reckless driving for probationary or junior licenses, which includes a 60-day suspension on the first conviction.
The State Legislature has to pass the bill through both houses before the session ends June 20 or it will be shelved. Cuomo called the measure a “common sense law” and did not believe there would be much opposition.
For Jamie Lieberman, 19, and Rachel Lieberman, 17, the story hits close to home. The loss of their brother to a distracted driver is a memory that stays with them every day.
In a generation of connected youth, texting while driving is something they openly speak out against, even when it is their friends doing it behind the wheel.
“When I see people [texting while driving] I tell them it is selfish,” Rachel Lieberman said. “I honestly can’t think of a text message that would be so important that you need to answer on the spot, on the road.”
Sergeant Station Commander Fennell of the New York State Police said he sees distracted drivers texting on the road all the time. When he pulls them over, he often tells them stories like the Liebermans’. It may not ease the sting of a ticket, but he said the sobering reminder often changes their attitude.
“The last thing we want to do is to go to someone’s house,” Fennell said. “That is part of our job, to go to the house and tell a parent their son or daughter could not make it today. That is the worst of our job.”
Time will tell if this connected generation will understand the severity of the consequences texting while driving can bring.
“I don’t think people will get it until they go through it or until they know someone who goes through it,” Jamie Lieberman said. “Unfortunately, if this keeps happening, everyone will go through it.”