By JOSEPH SPECTOR
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- New York may soon join 26 other states that allow police to pull over drivers who are sending text messages from behind the wheel.
New York is one of only four states that has a texting-while-driving ban but doesn't make it a primary offense, meaning police have to pull a driver over for another offense to be ticketed for texting.
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But legislation passed the state Assembly last Thursday to make texting while driving in New York a primary offense. The measure is expected to pass the Senate, perhaps as early as next week when they may return to session.
"This is a huge benefit to law enforcement," said New York State Police Captain Michael Nigrelli. "Since November of last year, it's been a secondary offense. I think local, county and state law enforcement officers have done their best to try and enforce the law, but it's difficult if you don't have a primary offense that you can stop drivers for."
Gov. David Paterson introduced in February the legislation to make the ban a primary offense after criticism that New York's law made it difficult for police to enforce. New York adopted the ban last year. The maximum fine is $150.
"It's a difficult law to enforce, period," said Barbara Harsha, executive director for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
"Making it primary makes it a little bit easier because a law enforcement official can stop someone for that law alone."
Assemblyman David Koon, D-Perinton, Monroe County, said the tougher law is needed after a series of high-profile deaths of teens in connection with texting while driving. "I think this particular legislation puts the teeth into that it really needs," Koon said. "Look at how many young people especially have been killed over the past few years."
In June 2007, five teen-age girls from Perinton died in a car crash linked to texting. In December 2007, 20-year-old A.J. Larson of West Seneca, Erie County, was sending a text message and died in a crash. Last year, 22-year-old Brandie Conklin of Eden, Erie County, had been text messaging when she crashed into a truck and died.
A spokesman for Sen. Martin Malave Dilan, D-Brooklyn, who is sponsoring the legislation, said the bill would hopefully be brought to the floor for a vote soon. It has already passed through the Senate committee process, but it is unclear when the Senate will return to session. They are expected back to Albany to vote on the final pieces of the state budget, which as due April 1.
The Governors Highway Safety Association said 30 states -- more than double the amount since New York's law took effect Nov. 1, 2009 -- have banned texting while driving. But only New York, Iowa, Nebraska and Virginia list it as a secondary offense, the group said.
Local law enforcement here in Western New York say this new law would be a "huge benefit" for area agencies. Local criminal attorney Barry Covert says cell phone records are likely to be subpoened to compare time stamps on text messages to the time the defendant was pulled over. Covert says it could be a hard crime to prove.
Click on the video link above to see Marissa Bailey's report and hear more from police and the local attorney.
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