A teenager texting behind the wheel

Texting behind the wheel has gotten public officials riled up. The result: commercials filled with zombies, a public campaign waged by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and a whole lot more tickets issued across the U.S.

As authorities continue to wage their years-long war against distracted driving, texting while driving has become the latest target of law enforcement and public safety agencies trying to stem the tide of an escalating problem.

“Everybody in traffic safety has been seeing that distracted driving in general—but more specifically the use of cell phones for texting and talking—has been a contributory factor over the last 5 to 10 years to increased crashes and fatalities,” said Chris Cochran, spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS), in an interview with Online Auto Insurance News. “Mobile devices have made it a much bigger problem.”

Statewide, traffic and law enforcement officials kicked off a major publicity push against distracted driving in April 2011, the first National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, said Cochran, who outlined the campaign’s four prongs to convince the public that: “Number one, that texting and talking was dangerous; number two, that it’s against the law; number three, you’d have to pay for violating the law; and number four, it’s a socially unacceptable behavior.”

What Will a Texting Ticket Do to Your Pocket?

OnlineAutoInsurance.com ran quote comparisons with three major insurers that together account for about a third of the country’s auto insurance market share to break down what texting tickets can do to your coverage rates.

The driver profile used in the comparison of car insurance quotes was a New York resident who is a 25-year-old single male with a 2008 Honda Civic DX, driving 10,000 miles a year, and having 25/50 bodily injury coverage limits.

At one insurer, a texting ticket for the sample motorist raised rates from $46.33 a month to $51.20 a month, meaning a $29.24 difference for the six-month policy term, or a 10.5 percent increase overall.

At another insurer, the violation inflated monthly rates from $67.30 to $73.45, or a $36.90 rise in price for a six-month policy, or a 9.1 percent increase overall.

Not all insurers will necessarily raise their rates for drivers who have a texting ticket, however.

At the third insurer, the presence of a texting ticket didn’t change the quote at all, yielding a $79-per-month rate with or without the violation.

But it’s not just a texting ticket’s impact on your rates you’ll have to worry about; remember that you’ll have to pay the fine itself.

In California—where Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last week to raise the base fines for texting offenses—the total fine for texting behind the wheel is $336, according to a statement from the governor’s office. While the base fine is $20, there is a handful of court and county fees attached to that base fine which inflates its actual cost.

The vetoed bill also sought to add a point to a driver’s record with multiple offenses. More than one point on a record can lose a policyholder their state-mandated discount for good drivers that lowers insurance premiums by 20 percent.

In New York, using a hand-held device and getting caught for it adds three points to a driving record, a relatively harsh penalty that puts the offense on par with drunk driving violations that charge the same amount of points.

Incurring several points will undoubtedly raise insurance rates, although the actual hike will depend on the insurer.

In New York, Public War on Texting Yields Massive Ticketing

If you’re a chronic texter, one place you don’t want to go while typing away at the wheel is New York. There, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made a political point of battling distracted driving in all its forms. Cuomo and the New York State Police have used “Operation Hang Up” two years in a row as a beefed-up law enforcement campaign that nabbed 800 drivers with tickets in 2011.

Cuomo called that year “a huge success” as authorities revived the campaign this past April.

In July 2011, Cuomo proudly publicized legislative efforts that saw texting while driving become a primary offense, giving cops more authority to pull over people they suspected of breaking that law. (Secondary offenses only allow police to ticket a violator for that offense if it is attached to a primary violation.)

Preliminary data from the New York Department of Motor Vehicles show that 21,018 texting-related tickets have been issued so far in 2012, although the numbers won’t be finalized until March of next year.

Ramped-up enforcement efforts have yielded more tickets in the past year: 33,463 tickets have been issued since 2009, according to state DMV data, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasted this summer that, since texting violations became a primary offense in July 2011, authorities have issued four times as many related tickets than the previous year.

“The major increase in tickets issued for texting-while-driving violations since this law went into effect demonstrates its usefulness in helping our law enforcement authorities crack down hard on distracted driving,” Cuomo said in a July 2012 statement.

California has also seen more texting tickets, with 8,000 more issued in April 2012 when compared with the same month last year.

Publicity Used as a Tool as Enforcement Still an Issue

Still, enforcement of anti-texting laws is not simple. In California, where texting behind the wheel is also a primary offense, “it’s a much tougher catch” than other distracted driving offenses like talking on a hand-held phone, according to Cochran.

“Texting is done down below the dashboard, so the officer has to actually see them texting and doing it for a period of time,” he said. “They have to be certain that it’s a text before they can pull it over.”

The wording of the law has been a barrier for enforcement because “as of yet, dialing a phone and using it as a speakerphone isn’t illegal,” according to Cochran.

If public safety officials can’t reach motorists with the threat of enforcement, public awareness has been their other tool.

Armed with the slogan “Don’t Be a Distracted Driving Zombie” and capitalizing on the pop culture popularity of the walking corpses, the OTS, the California Highway Patrol, and other state entities put on a very public campaign with televised commercials.

Their message was the same as many others, including federal officials who say that sending or receiving a text is equal to a motorist driving 55 mph across an entire football field—blind.