Councilman Seeks to Ban Text Messaging at Wheel

Published: August 14, 2008

Councilman David I. Weprin’s 16-year old twins are like a lot of teenagers: They text-message their friends every few minutes. And they cannot wait to get their driver’s licenses.

It’s a combination their father, a Queens Democrat, worries about. On Friday he will unveil a measure that would ban the sending or reading of text messages while driving within city limits.

“It’s a risk to drivers, obviously, and also to passengers and pedestrians,” Mr. Weprin said in an interview. “You’re not looking at the road and you don’t have both hands on the wheel” when engaged in text-messaging. “The probability for accidents is too high to ignore.”

Mr. Weprin said the bill would be modeled on New York State’s ban on the use of cellphones while driving, which imposes a $100 fine for the first infraction.

He said the proposal was an outgrowth of the crash last summer in the Finger Lakes region of New York State in which five teenage girls riding in a sport utility vehicle died. A police investigation revealed that the driver’s cellphone was being used to send text messages at the time of the accident, in which her car swerved into oncoming traffic and collided with a tractor-trailer.

Mr. Weprin said: “I don’t send text messages. I can read them, but I find the print too small. A lot of this is generational. I’m 52. If somebody sends me a text message, I usually call them.”

Mr. Weprin said his measure would be rendered unnecessary if the State Legislature approved a similar bill that is now pending. But Mr. Weprin, who is running for city comptroller, said that he was announcing his proposal now in part to attract attention. He especially wants to raise awareness about a new system introduced by the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission to dispatch handicapped-accessible taxicabs via BlackBerry.

The taxi drivers are asked to text-message back to the dispatcher if they are available to pick up a passenger who has called the city’s 311 line to request a special cab, Mr. Weprin said.

“The problem with that, of course, is that you’re creating a very dangerous situation,” he said.

The taxi commissioner, Matthew W. Daus, said that the new trial system required drivers to pull over when using their texting devices. “There’s nothing in this bill that’s incompatible with our program,” he said. “We put a lot of thought into this, and in the end we’re still open to changing if it doesn’t work. But we give drivers credit.”

There are currently four states that outlaw texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit coalition of state offices — Alaska, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington — and legislation is being considered in 16 others, according to Mr. Weprin’s staff.

Mr. Weprin said that he was hoping to attract more sponsors for the bill before he officially introduces it at the Council’s next meeting, in early September.

Jason Post, a spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said that as a practice, the mayor did not comment on legislation that has yet to be introduced.

According to a 2006 study by Nationwide Insurance, 19 percent of drivers use text messaging while at the wheel, and that number jumped to 37 percent among drivers aged 18 to 27.

While auto safety groups like the AAA and the makers of handheld devices have stated their support of a ban, it does have the potential to chafe among libertarians and others who deem it an infringement on personal freedoms.

“It’s foolish to drive a car and try to text message at the same time, but to criminalize all stupid behavior is fruitless,” said Joseph L. Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit organization in Chicago that describes its bent as free-market. “I suppose it’s just a matter of time before they try to ban smoking while driving.”

Of course, among highly driven and time-pressed New Yorkers, it can be hard to resist sending a quick text message while stopped at a traffic light or driving on a quiet country road. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer was recently revealed to have sent text messages from his minivan while driving near his country home in the Hudson Valley.

In transcripts of his e-mail and text-message correspondence with staff members — released last month as part of a State Ethics Commission investigation — Mr. Spitzer can be glimpsed messaging his spokesman Darren Dopp in response to Mr. Dopp’s query about whether he has read the Sunday papers’ coverage of his nemesis, Joseph L. Bruno, the state Republican leader.

“Haven’t seen,” Mr. Spitzer, a notoriously erratic typist, wrote. “Heading. To twin now.” (He apparently meant town.) And in the next message: “Not a good day for joe.”

As he testified to the commission, he was heading to the nearest newsstand from his country house, which is in Pine Plains.

“Well, this one I was probably BlackBerrying while I was driving,” Mr. Spitzer testified. “The state troopers would let me drive my own minivan to town.”

Then, the Harvard Law-trained former attorney general, referring to the state law banning talking on cellphones while driving, added: “I’m not sure if the statute goes to BlackBerrying, or just the cellphone, or how it defines it, but I may have pulled over.”

Source : The New York Times

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