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Andrew Cuomo

With Plenty of Fanfare, Cuomo Toughens New York’s Distracted Driving Law

5:37 PM EDT on July 12, 2011

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a tougher distracted driving law today in a theatrical event at the Javits Center. Hopefully he'll turn his traffic safety attention and bully pulpit next to speeding cameras. Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr.

Standing in front of two police cars and an enormous electronic traffic sign, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed tougher statewide distracted driving legislation into law this afternoon.

The law, sponsored by State Senator Carl Marcellino and Assembly Member Harvey Weisenberg, makes the use of handheld electronic devices while driving a primary offense, allowing the police to issue tickets for distracted driving without first pulling over motorists for a separate offense. Prior to the passage of this law, New York was one of only four states to ban distracted driving while impeding its enforcement in this way.

Cuomo also announced that he'll bridge the difference between the legislators' bill and his own stronger proposal, which would have increased the number of points added to a distracted driver's license from two to three, through administrative action. (We are trying to confirm the mechanism, but sources say the DMV may be able to make that change on its own.)

For Transportation Alternatives general counsel Juan Martinez, the highlight of the event was Cuomo's comparison of using a car to "driving a two-ton missile." That kind of strong language, paired with the attention-grabbing, highly-choreographed press event, could suggest that the governor sees traffic safety as a major issue for his administration.

Cuomo was also able to tout the support of State Police Superintendent Joseph D'Amato, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and New York State AAA President Thomas Hoy in a press release.

Hopefully Cuomo can reassemble that coalition in support of automated speeding cameras. Distracted driving causes 10,000 crashes in New York state each year, but at least in New York City, speeding causes more deadly crashes than distracted driving and drunk driving combined. Enforcement cameras have been proven to be effective in slowing down speeding motorists, but Assembly Member Deborah Glick's legislation empowering New York City to install them hasn't gone anywhere in Albany.

Right now, AAA New York is opposed to speeding cameras, charging that they are only an attempt to raise revenues from tickets, and Ray Kelly is persistently silent on the issue. If a governor as popular as Cuomo turns his attention to the hazards of speeding, however, and employs the bully pulpit treatment on display today, the political dynamic could turn on a dime.

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