The number of texting tickets issued by police in New York State increased 918 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to state figures.
And, in 2015 alone, 160 people were killed in distracted driving-related incidents.
“It’s like people can’t put the phone down,” said Elizabeth Carey, a spokeswoman for AAA’s Western and Central New York regional zone.
That has prompted local prosecutors to bring the hammer down.
A Ballston Spa man whose truck struck and killed a University at Buffalo nursing professor on the Thruway in June 2017 was recently sentenced to 1½ to 4½ years in prison. At the moment of impact, the driver, Kristofer M. Gregorek, had just bought a video game and was filling out a customer satisfaction survey on his cellphone, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said.
Flynn called the second-degree manslaughter charge against Gregorek an aggressive one.
Prosecutors often pursue a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide in similar cases.
“That’s kind of the standard charge for these accident-type cases,” Flynn said. “We took it up a notch.”
Flynn said he’s going to “see what he can do” to get a message out to high school students about the dangers of distracted driving.
In distracted-driving incidents, it’s up to prosecutors to analyze the facts of a case when deciding what charges to pursue, said lawyer Michael Taheri, who specializes in DWI-related cases. “(It’s) where does the evidence take you, and the totality of it.”
In 2015, police issued 5,000 to 10,000 traffic tickets in Erie County for distracted driving-related incidents, according to AAA data.
Last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office announced that law enforcement agencies across New York would step up patrols to crack down on distracted driving, citing a study conducted by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research.
According to that study, 160 people in 2015 were killed due to “driver inattention/distraction” in New York State, and 33,000 people were injured in crashes of similar nature.
Carey said State Police have been “diligent” about the issue.
Dating back to 2009, other fatal distracted driving-related cases in Western New York included:
- A 4-year-old boy died after his father, Kevin F. McCabe, slammed his pickup truck into the back of a tractor trailer on Route 16 in Sardinia. Minutes before the 2015 crash, McCabe texted a photo of the boy, Tristan, and his cousin, 7-year-old Katherine McCabe, in the truck’s front seat, prosecutors said. McCabe was sentenced to prison and convicted of manslaughter.
- A 16-year-old pedestrian, Ryan Fischer, was struck and killed in 2014 on Kruger Road in Wheatfield by Anthony J. DiFilippo, who fled the scene. Niagara County Sheriff’s deputies initially said DiFilippo was texting and driving, but prosecutors could only prove he was texting within minutes of the crash. DiFilippo was sentenced to six months in jail and a five-month probation term, after accepting a plea to a lesser felony charge, attempted leaving the scene of a fatal accident without reporting.
- A 33-year-old mother of two, Julie I. Stratton, was killed after an Ohio truck driver smashed into her disabled vehicle on the Thruway near Pembroke. The driver, Thomas M. Wallace, admitted that he was watching porn on a laptop when he hit Stratton’s vehicle. Wallace was sentenced to prison and convicted of manslaughter.