It is, perhaps, small consolation for the deaths that texting while driving has caused in Erie County, but it is nonetheless encouraging to see that law enforcement officers here are taking seriously laws that make this dangerous practice a primary offense.
Figures reported in The Buffalo News last week show that it has become very risky for Erie County motorists to text while they drive. Officers here -- particularly State Police -- are far and away the most active in issuing tickets for the offense in upstate New York. Between July 12 and Feb. 7, officers in Erie County issued 662 texting tickets, compared to 476 in Suffolk County, 249 in Monroe County, 202 in Nassau County and 93 in Niagara County.
Indeed, the only counties issuing more tickets than Erie were the densely urban downstate counties of New York, Queens and Kings.
Given Erie County's size, it is hardly surprising that it is issuing more tickets than other upstate counties, but it is also issuing more per capita -- about one ticket for every 1,388 residents compared with a ticket for every 2,989 residents in Monroe County and for every 2,327 residents in Niagara County.
Erie County did have a head start on enforcement. The County Legislature enacted its own tough law in 2009, after Kelly Cline of West Seneca pushed for tougher laws. Two years earlier, her 20-year-old son was killed in a crash blamed on texting. It wasn't until last July that texting while driving became a primary offense statewide, meaning police could issue tickets for that offense alone. Previously, it was a secondary offense, meaning that police could cite a driver for it only if the driver had also been cited for some other offense, such as speeding.
The change was urgently needed. While the risks of driving while talking on a hands-free device are in dispute, there is no challenging the risks of texting while driving. A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting increased the risk of a crash or near crash to more than 23 times that of "nondistracted" driving.
That's a severe risk, not merely for the foolhardy driver paying more attention to his phone than to his car, but to all nearby drivers, passengers, pedestrians and property owners. Indeed, it is surprising that the law took as long as it did to catch up to this dangerous practice, but it has and, happily, Erie County officers are setting the pace for the rest of upstate to follow.
That specifically should include Niagara County, where efforts on this critical front are still ramping up. Although it is less densely populated than Erie County, we see no reason why residents there should be more susceptible to the risks of texting while driving because of lax enforcement.
Texting is only one of many ways drivers become distracted. GPS units, iPods and other cellphone temptations all increase driving risks. As cars start arriving with Internet connections, dangers will rise even more. It's a new age on the roads. The crackdown on texting while driving is an important response to those changes, but we suspect there will be more to come.