February 6, 2009
Police keep sharper eye on cell phone drivers
City police, Sheriff’s Department have issued more tickets for driving and talking on a cell phone
Drivers may still be talking on their cell phones while behind the wheel, but police are getting better at spotting them on the road.
Police issue thousands of tickets each year for traffic violations, but ticketing someone for using a cell phone is a bit more challenging, said Lt. Mark Helms of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Department.
Cell phone tickets issued by the Sheriff’s Department and city police have risen in recent years, while tickets issued by State Police have gone down slightly.
“It’s not that more people are using their cell phones, we’re just spotting them better,” Helms said.
Cortland County Sheriff’s deputies issued 759 cell phone tickets in 2008, a significant increase from 306 cell phone tickets in 2007, with 41 issued in 2006.
City police issued 184 cell phone violation tickets in 2008, compared to 177 in 2007.
City police Chief James Nichols said those numbers are a sharp increase since 2006 and 2005, when 62 and 13 cell phone tickets were issued respectively.
Sgt. Jeffrey Dorward of the State Police in Homer said about 100 fewer cell phone tickets were issued in 2008 than 2006.
Troopers issued 426 tickets in 2008 for driving with cell phones in Cortland County, which is five more than in 2007. In 2006, 527 cell phone tickets were issued.
“If you were looking for it all the time, you could double the numbers easily,” Helms said.
The cell phone ban went into effect Dec. 1, 2001, and prohibits cell phone use while driving, with an emergency being an exception. However, the law does permit hands-free use.
Fines are typically $25 plus up to $50 surcharge for cell phone violation tickets. According to state the law, the maximum fine is $100.
Nichols said ticketing drivers with a cell phone violation is important, but added there are many other vehicle violations that are no less relevant.
“The behavior of the driver can be a larger threat to the public and this falls into that spectrum,” Nichols said.
Many drivers in recent years have taken to using a Blue Tooth for cell phone use on the road. The device attaches to the ear and can be used in conjunction with a cell phone.
Other drivers use speaker phones while on the road. Both options would not warrant a ticket, Helms said.
Helms said the trick with cell phone tickets is an officer has to be 100 percent sure they saw the cell phone in the driver’s hand.
“Sometimes it’s obvious, but a lot of people drive with their elbow resting on the door, covering their ear,” Helms said. “They could be covering a cell phone, or not at all.”
Helms expects just as many cell phone tickets will be issued by police agencies in 2009, perhaps more.
Police say the risk for causing an accident is greater if a driver is sending text messages on a phone.
Police say drivers are less likely to pay attention while on the road if they are holding a cell phone to their ear.
“One time I was stopping a driver for a cell phone and I followed them for about a block with lights flashing and they didn’t pull over, they weren’t paying attention,” Helms said.
Because catching someone in the act of using a cell phone is not always accurate, police may not always pursue the driver.
An officer on patrol may have a more urgent call to respond to or work on chasing down a driver using their cell phone, Helms said.
“It’s tough, you have to prioritize what you respond to,” Helms said.
He added patrol officers have noticed drivers pulling over to the roadside to use their cell phones in recent months, especially on Tompkins Street, where accidents tend to be frequent.
Annual state grants awarded in 2007 have also helped the city police and Sheriff’s Department crack down on dangerous drivers.
The grants the for Selective Traffic Enforcement Program is aimed at cutting down on risky driver behaviors such as using cell phones while driving and following too closely, Lt. Jon Gesin of city police said. The STEP grant monitors several locations in Cortland, including Tompkins Street.
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