CT lawmakers eye NY’s “Texting Zone” strategy for highway safety [CT Mirror]

October 25, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Connecticut Mirror

Ever feel the urge to text while driving?

If that happens in New York, look around. There’s probably a sign nearby showing where the next safe “Texting Zone” is located.

New York officials have captured some of their Connecticut counterparts’ attention with their new campaign to stop cellphone use on highways.

Earlier this fall the Empire State installed nearly 300 signs on its major highways, notifying motorists of the proximity of the nearest public rest area.

The “Texting Zone” awareness campaign came shortly after N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an extensive enforcement crackdown by state police that included a 365 percent increase in tickets issues for illegal activity on the highways.

Connecticut, which like New York has recently toughened penalties for illegal cellphone use on the highways, has its own campaign.

Connecticut legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy approved two measures this spring to discourage illegal cellphone use.

Starting this month, the fines for violations increase from:

  • $125 to $150 for the first offense;
  • $250 to $300 for the second offense;
  • $400 to $500 for each subsequent offense.

The state also now imposes at least one point on the record of all drivers guilty of illegal cellphone use.

And cellphone use now is banned even when the driver is operating a vehicle at a temporary standstill, such as at an intersection stop light.

The state Department of Transportation is partnering with AT&T’s national campaign — “It Can Wait” — an educational outreach program to high schools across Connecticut. The state also sponsors a safe driving video contest for teens.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, co-chairman of the Connecticut legislature’s Transportation Committee, praised efforts here, but said the New York approach deserves some attention.

“It’s something that’s worth discussing,” he said. “It certainly is interesting.”

Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, the ranking GOP senator on the Transportation Committee, said the New York approach would be a smart way to take advantage of the 30 public rest areas and service plazas on Connecticut’s highways.

“It makes a lot of sense to me,” Boucher said. “Something as simple as a reminder, for most people, is all that they need.”

With cellphones offering an ever-increasing array of applications, “you now have a virtual computer in a hand-held device” — all of which can tempt a driver who feels a sense of urgency to use one of them.

“If you know the next rest stop is just a mile away, maybe you wait,” Boucher added.

The head of the state’s largest trucking association also said this week that Connecticut could benefit from mirroring New York’s approach.

But Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transportation Association of Connecticut, said the state also should consider adding some new rest areas.

“I think that’s a creative idea, a good idea,” he said. “But it puts more pressure on a valuable resource.”

The state DOT recommended 12 years ago that Connecticut needed about 1,200 more rest area parking spaces, primarily for truckers needing a break while on long trips.

And Riley said the need now is closer to 1,500 spaces, adding that many rest area parking lots routinely are filled to capacity during the night.