By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY Not only is it unsafe to text and drive, it will soon cost you more if you get caught.
The state budget set to be approved this week will increase the penalties for texting while driving and talking on cell phone, hiking the fee for multiple violators to up to $400.
The legislation also increases the fine for talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device from $100 to $150 for a first offense, making it consistent with the first-time fine for texting while driving.
"It's the law, and people have to follow the law, and if they don't follow the law, I think we have to do something to impress upon them that it's the wrong thing to do," Assembly Transportation Committee chairman David Gantt, D-Rochester, said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to include in the budget an $80 surcharge when a speeding ticket is pleaded down to a parking violation. The final proposal in the budget was limited to a $25 state surcharge, and there's an $8 state surcharge added to other moving violations.
Cuomo signed the bill to ban texting-while-driving in 2011 after a number of fatal accidents involving teenagers who were texting behind the wheel. An original law in 2009 made texting while driving a secondary infraction and didn't allow police to pull someone over specifically for it. But the 2011 law made it a primary offense, and texting-while-driving tickets have soared since.
The 2011 law also increased the penalty for using a handheld device while driving from two to three points on a license.
From January 2012 through November 2012, police issued nearly 26,000 texting-while-driving violations - compared to about 9,000 in all of 2011.
The most in 2012 outside New York City was in Erie County, which issued about 1,400 tickets between January and November. Second was Monroe County at about 900, followed by Suffolk County and Westchester County, which issued about 700.
The budget change would increase the fines for distracted driving to up to a $200 fine for two infractions withing 18 months and up to $400 for three or more offenses in 18 months.
"Distracted drivers jeopardize the safety of everyone on the road; they are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash than a regular driver," said Senate Transportation Committee chairman Charles Fuschillo, R-Nassau County, in a statement.
The budget also bolsters regulations that prohibit commercial drivers from using electronic devices and talking on a cell phone while stopped in traffic.
Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA New York, said the proposals are positive steps toward limiting distracted driving.
"Given the severity of the distraction that comes from texting while driving, we think it's a good piece of legislation," he said.