County OKs law banning texting by drivers
Enforcement difficulty is confronted by police
By Matthew Spina and Stephen T. Watson
News Staff Reporters
Updated: October 23, 2009, 12:09 AM /
The Erie County Legislature unanimously passed a bill Thursday to outlaw texting while driving and give police and sheriff’s deputies a new weapon to ticket anyone they see doing it. But such a ban has been largely untested in New York and may be difficult to enforce.

Take Onondaga County, for example. That Central New York county made texting while driving a primary offense as of July 1, one of several counties that passed their own laws in the absence of a tough, statewide ban.

But Onondaga County sheriff’s deputies as of Thursday had not issued a single ticket for texting, said Sgt. John F. D’Eredita, a spokesman.

“It’s a new law. It’s going to be a difficult law to enforce,” D’Eredita said. “It’s something that has to be seen,” he said of texting, and drivers “are mastering the masking of texting while they are driving.”

Earlier this year, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties enacted bans on texting by drivers that went into effect Oct. 1 and Aug. 1, respectively.

The new law will be valuable, however, because it gives investigators another potential charge to bring after a crash if it’s determined that the driver was texting, D’Eredita said.

Police officials in Erie County acknowledge that the new law may be difficult to enforce because it can be hard to spot a driver texting on a phone held below the window line.

Also, a driver can see a marked patrol car well before the officer can spot a phone in the driver’s hand.

But police say they welcome the chance to enforce the texting ban and hope the law will make drivers think twice about sending or reading text messages while behind the wheel.

“I am encouraged by it, and hopefully it will prevent needless tragedies from occurring,” said Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard. “Distracted driving is dangerous driving, period.”

Erie County’s bill says sheriff’s deputies are to enforce the law. But since county lawmakers cannot affect local police agencies, it says only that other Erie County agencies may enforce the ban.

The measure, which sets the fine at $150, now goes to County Executive Chris Collins for his signature. An aide said that Collins supports the measure but believes that the best way to ban texting while driving is through stronger statewide legislation.

A state law that takes effect Nov. 1 will ban texting while driving, but as a secondary infraction, meaning that law officers can stop drivers for texting only if they notice some other offense, such as speeding.

“To make it a secondary offense, while people are dying, does not make any sense,” said Legislator Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, a main sponsor of the county bill. “By putting forth this law here today, we are making texting while driving illegal here in Erie County, and New York State should follow suit.”

The Legislature saved action on the bill for its final meeting before Election Day. The bill would go into effect upon Collins’ signature, though he first will hold a public hearing.

Many drivers, particularly young ones, text with impunity while they are driving. While it has been illegal for years to talk on a hand-held phone while driving, drivers send or receive text messages. But texting while driving can be more distracting than talking on a phone.

“I believe it is because your eyes naturally have to be taken away from the roadway to do the texting,” said West Seneca Police Chief Edward F. Gehen Jr.

Gehen’s officers responded to a December 2007 crash in which A.J. Larson, who had been texting, was killed after he missed a stop sign and drove into the path of an oncoming truck.

Larson’s mother, Kelly Cline, has worked tirelessly since then to persuade state legislators to approve a texting ban, and she favors the Erie County bill. Cline, Gehen and others believe that the law will have an educational effect and may persuade some people to put down their phone while driving.

The county’s ban is more useful than the state’s, which requires officers to see a driver commit another offense before they can cite a driver for texting, advocates say.

“What the state has passed is not enough,” Cline said. “So I truly appreciate what the county has done.”

Amherst Assistant Police Chief Timothy M. Green said he will have to read the county law to determine how his department’s officers will be able to enforce it.

“It would be different than writing a regular ticket because it’s not a state [vehicle and traffic] law,” Green said.

Local police agencies have made inroads in enforcing the ban on drivers’ talking on a phone without using a hands-free device. West Seneca officers have handed out 291 tickets since Jan. 1 for driving while using a mobile device, Gehen said, which can be easier to see because the phone is held near the ear.

Howard said that over the last 12 months, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office has issued 590 such tickets.