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N.Y. County Court Turns to Tech to Beat Distracted Driving

With distracted driving becoming an increasingly popular target of state law, one New York county is giving drivers a chance to wipe the bad marks from their record through in-car technology.

Imagine texting at a stoplight when a police officer pulls up next to you. Sure, you knew better, but now there's a ticket with your name on it. While you could pay the fines, take the marks against your record and just move on — tail tucked firmly between your legs — you might also get a chance to wipe your record clean if you live in New York’s Nassau County.

Like many other states, New York has a law on the books limiting the use of handheld mobile devices while operating moving vehicles. And like many other states, has caught a fair number of citizens using them despite the law.

The Nassau County Distracted Driver Education program allows offenders to install a specialized device in their vehicle, which monitors their use of smartphones while in motion. If after 90 days, the enrollee hasn’t flunked out of the program, the marks against his or her record are expunged.

There are some upfront costs associated with participation in the program. In addition to paying the fines that come from a distracted driving citation (between $50 and $400) and the cost of the in-car device (roughly $112), but on the balance, it beats accumulating the five points toward a suspended driver’s license. In New York, 11 points in 18 months, can equate to a suspension.

Cellcontrol is the company behind the how of the county program, and as marketing Vice President Jesse Hoggard explained, is helping the local government get a better grasp on the serious issue. 

“They were writing a fairly large amount of distracted driving-related tickets on a monthly basis ... and a good portion of these, probably 30 to 40 percent of those tickets every month, were repeat offenders,” he said. “The leadership in Nassau County [Traffic & Parking Violations Agency] really just kind of got tired of that behavior and almost kind of a disregard for the law.”

According to 2015 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the use of handheld devices has held relatively steady nationwide since the organization began tracking the numbers in 2006, though what it classifies as “visible manipulation of handheld devices” has increased.

The solution, called DriveID, tracks device usage in the vehicle cabin as well as driving habits, Hoggard said, and provides a detailed report to the courts at the end of the 90-day period. In addition, the solution limits access to text, email and game features of each phone paired with the DriveID device.

“As of February, we have 1,600 people who have gone through the program and it has about a 98 percent success rate, meaning those who enter the program successfully exit the program,” Hoggard said. “The response has been really positive, and I’ve got to tell you, we did not expect that on the part of the drivers themselves.”

Akin to the dangers of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, mobile device usage on roadways accounts for a significant number of fatal accidents each year. It's a problem the Governors Highway Safety Association sees as a critical issue on U.S. roadways.

Numbers provided by the NHTSA cite distracted driving as responsible for around 10 percent of annual roadway deaths, though Kara Macek, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said the real number is likely much greater but is difficult to measure accurately. “We suspect that many instances go unreported. We strongly suspect that the actual number would be far greater than that,” she said. “At a minimum, we’re looking at 10 percent fatalities related to distracted driving.”

Though 46 states have anti-texting legislation on the books, only 14 have anti-handheld cellphone laws.

When asked whether ticketing and education programs tend to lessen the recidivism rates of drivers prone to using mobile devices, Macek said the data hasn’t been compiled to show success or failure of the tactics.

Efforts like checkpoints and random enforcement certainly help to stop an activity short term, but she said social normalization of the practice must be reversed to show long-term success in reducing the activity.

“I sort of categorize distracted driving in the category as speeding in the sense that it’s a problem, it’s contributing to a lot of fatalities, but it’s still sort of a cultural norm. People do it and it’s not unacceptable in the way that we have made drinking and driving unacceptable,” she said.

From the perspective of the association, the program is worth charging ahead with. Unlike spot enforcement, Macek said the 90-day probationary period could be enough time to reform some of the bad habits so many people have when it comes to using their mobile devices on the road.

Despite multiple attempts to reach officials in charge of the Nassau County Distracted Driver Education program, calls and emails were not returned as of press time May 17.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at