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Feb 5, 2019 1:25 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

East End Police Departments Hope To Dissuade Distracted Driving

Police officers can write tickets and reports on a computer in the patrol car and print copies for the involved drivers through a law enforcement software, which sends data directly to the police station and the DMV. JD ALLEN
Feb 5, 2019 4:50 PM

The number of crashes due to distracted driving on the South Fork has decreased slightly in recent years, according to data collected by State Department of Motor Vehicles.

In 2016, there were 3 percent fewer crashes than the previous year due to distracted driving—activities that take the hands off a steering wheel, eyes off the road and mind off driving—and 1 percent fewer in 2017 than in 2016, in municipalities across the South Fork.

But, overall, the number of crashes hasn’t significantly changed in the past decade—despite more drivers having, and using, cell phones while on the road, which vie for their attention.

For area police officials, any reduction in crashes is good news—roads are that much safer.

“The goal of any enforcement effort is to decrease the offending behavior and improve safety, so the associated drop in accidents obviously is rewarding,” said East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo. His department saw some of the largest declines in the number of accidents, from highs of 99 in 2012, to a low of 47 in 2016, according to the DMV.

Crashes are recorded by the DMV when a police department files an accident report digitally.

“It may be difficult to quantify the data as an absolute success as other variables may be in play,” said Quogue Police Chief Chris Isola, who noted that the DMV data doesn’t distinguish between various causes of driver distraction.

“It may be safe to say, that we are hopeful that enforcement efforts have ultimately resulted in lower instances of distracted driving accidents … a contributing factor in many accidents,” he continued. Crashes in Quogue increased from 5 to 11 from 2009 to 2017.

In 2001, it became illegal statewide to use a hand-held phone while driving, in an effort to combat distracted driving. As a result, police departments started issuing violations for hand-held cell phone use. The state expanded the law in 2010 to target drivers who were texting. The regulation allowed law enforcement officers to pull over a driver who was observed being distracted by their phone even if it was being used hands-free. Since then, police have generally focused their enforcement efforts on texting.

Police departments are expected to ramp up ticketing for distracted driving in the next few years. There is legislation working its way through Albany that prohibits the use of electronic devices while stopped in a vehicle, targeted at people taking photos, watching videos, updating GPS, surfing the web and trading emails, texts or messages on social media.

In 2009, 2,446 distracted driving crashes were recorded by police departments in East Hampton Town, Southampton Town, Southampton Village, East Hampton Village, Quogue, Westhampton Beach and Sag Harbor. The number hasn’t really budged—2,460 crashes were recorded in 2017.

During the same time period, cell phone violations mainly decreased year over year across the South Fork, from 2,202 tickets to 973. The number of tickets for texting increased year over year to a high of 799 violations in 2017.

Convictions for texting and cell phone use come with up to five driver violation points and a $50 fine for first time offenders, and up to $450 fines for multiple violations. Insurance companies recalculate higher premiums for drivers with high-point tickets, too.

“When we pull someone over, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting a ticket,” said Southampton Town Police Lieutenant Susan Ralph. “It’s more about having a conversation with the public about these dangers. Our job is not to just write summonses. We are educators, whether it is a teen driver or an adult driver.”

For instance, East Hampton Village Police issue almost double the number of warnings to distracted drivers than summonses, as an educational tool, Chief Michael Tracy said, hoping that it will “scare them straight.”

“It is a factor of visibility,” he said. “With more officers seen on the road, there is a greater possibility of being stopped for distracted driving or preventing distracted driving before it happens.”

While the number of crashes hasn’t significantly changed in East Hampton Village—up by six in 2017, but lower than 63 in 2014—there was an uptick in ticketing for cell phone use and texting in 2017, with 61 and 12, respectively.

In Southampton Town, crashes are down from a high of 367 in 2015 to 263 crashes two years later, which Lt.. Ralph partially attributes to increased patrols to spot distracted drivers. Some municipalities, including Southampton Town, participate in the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee program, which allocates additional funding for police agencies to perform targeted sweeps for distracted drivers.

“It is not difficult, because they are distracted and not looking at the street. Folks will drive right on by officers and through a stop sign looking at their phone,” Southampton Village Police Lieutenant Chris Wetter said. The village has seen a slight reduction in crashes, down 10 from 2013, while the number of texting tickets has nearly doubled.

“Because of the business district and community outcry to keep streets safe, we have promoted strict enforcement to keep crashes down,” he continued. “When there is more volume and there are more people on the road, you have to put the devices down and be careful.”

For a while, ticketing was an effective strategy for dissuading people from using their cell phones while driving, Westhampton Beach Village Police Chief Trevor Gonce said. To catch more distracted drivers, police officers ride in taller SUVs to be able to look down into nearby vehicles. Some vehicles even have flat roofs to hide their strobing police lights.

In Westhampton Beach, a few more violations for texting are issued each year and the number of drivers ticketed for using a cell phone by hand fluctuates as priorities change from year to year. There were 46 texting tickets issued in 2017, compared to 41 the year prior. Crashes due to distracted driving have largely stayed the same, however the department did record the highest number in 2017, at 25.

Chief Gonce attributes the uptick to drivers, especially older drivers, catching on to police tactics.

Recently, the strategy for many departments, including Westhampton Beach, is to teach students the dangers of distracted driving at a young age. For instance, Officer Andrew Kirwin, who was assigned to protect the Westhampton Beach High School and Middle School in September as a school resource officer, also speaks in classes about police work and distracted driving.

“If you look at nationally, texting while driving numbers are higher than those crashes for driving while intoxicated. That’s a fact. When you are on your phone, your eyes are not on the road,” Chief Gonce said. “We are not going to see the impact of these classes for years if we are teaching middle schoolers. But by the time they are seniors in high school, I expect it will really pay off. It’s the same way we targeted drinking and driving.”

The data is from New York State Traffic Safety Statistical Repository, an online archive of safety and statistics summaries of traffic crashes, tickets and conviction rates that is maintained by the DMV.

The information comes from the department’s Accident Information System, the state’s primary crash information system. When a police officer logs an accident report, it eventually is sent to the state through the law enforcement software TraCS, which is available to officers to write tickets and reports on a computer in the patrol car and print copies for the involved drivers. The public facing portion of this information is available through Traffic Safety Law Enforcement and Disposition, or TSLED—a ticket accountability system.

Some local police departments contended TSLED might not have the full picture.

Chief Tracey said the state reporting may be much lower than the total number of violations recorded by the department. His department counted 200 percent more crashes due to distracted driving—which includes cell phone and texting violations, but also anything from being distracted by a restless dog in the front seat to playing with the radio and updating GPS—than what the state offered. Think 132 crashes in 2017 compared to 49. Ticketing information also differed significantly.

Chief Tracey speculated one reason for the discrepancy is TSLED tracks violations from the time they are issued until they are adjudicated in the courts. If the violation is thrown out in court or is adjusted by a judge, perhaps the data isn’t recorded the same.

Nevertheless, he said the data is important to law enforcement.

“We hope to look at this data to see trends in enforcement to better our strategy going forward,” Chief Tracey said. “We need it to predict where we need to be and fill in any holes in our enforcement.”

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I don't believe this. Everyone seems to be on their phone. Its horrible. A cop will ask if they were distracted. They reply no. Case done
By Win sky (53), Southampton on Feb 9, 19 12:32 PM
This ^^^
Also as someone that is often a passenger on a motorcycle let me tell you ...I see insane s$&t !!!
Women applying makeup
People eating and not just a “to go” burger I’ve seen people with bowls in their hands ....
And just generally not paying attention...
By Sturgis (605), Southampton on Feb 9, 19 7:04 PM
Not just the phones which are very bad and rampant, but what about the dogs in the lap of the driver? I also saw a Mercedes with a live cat on the dashboard. I don't know how the police can drive 1 mile without nabbing someone.
By North Sea Citizen (561), North Sea on Feb 16, 19 9:53 AM
Hampton Bays Rotary, Autumn Evening by the Sea, Oakland's, HB Rotary