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State Trooper John Jackson pulls a driver over for talking on a handheld phone while driving. Photo: Natasha Haverty
State Trooper John Jackson pulls a driver over for talking on a handheld phone while driving. Photo: Natasha Haverty

Ten distracted driving questions, answered!

Today we've already ridden shutgun in one of the unmarked vehicles the state police use to crack down on distracted driving. Now that we've gotten a look into that world, let's tackle some questions about distracted driving.

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Tison, J., Chaudhary, N., & Cosgrove, L. (2011, December). National phone survey on distracted driving <br />attitudes and behaviors. From the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration<br />

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1. What counts as a "handheld device"? What if I'm using my phone as a GPS? Does that count as "distracted driving"? Yes, it does! Using a GPS, whether it's part of your phone, or a GPS device, only counts as "hands free" if it's mounted to your vehicle. Lots of things, not just phones, count as electronic devices: pagers, electronic games, PDAs ("Personal Digital Assistants"). So if you're using a handheld device, you're breaking the law. Remember Trooper Jackson's "oddest" example of distracted driving was a guy driving and typing on a laptop. The U.S. Department of Transportation calls lots of things distracted driving but that's different than what automatically counts as breaking the distracted driving law, here in New York, for example.

2. So then how about if someone's eating a sandwich, or putting in a CD, or cleaning up a coffee spill from the floor? Isn't that "distracted driving"? So while New York's actual "distracted driving law" bans handheld devices and texting, there are still ways you could be breaking the law by doing any of that other distracting stuff above. If both hands are off the wheel, doesn't matter why, that's against the law. Check out the DMV's statistics about the all the reported car crashes (their word) in 2012: It breaks down all the human factors really comprehensively. For example, "Using Headphones" caused 18 crashes; "Eating or Drinking" caused 77. But I haven't found any laws yet that encompass, say, eating a burrito or curling your eyelashes on the road in and of themselves.

3. So then why are phones the target of distracted driving laws? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, "because text messaging requires visual, manual, and cognitive attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction."

4. Isn't being in a phone conversation still dangerous, even if it's "hands free"? Research shows that being part of a phone conversation behind the wheel, even if you're "hands free" distracts drivers from crucial visual and aural cues that could prevent a crash. There are other states where being on the phone, whether it's handheld or hands free, is illegal. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, handset cell phone use isn't much safer than handheld.

5. Is it really okay for a police officer to go that fast to catch a distracted driver? Early in the story I asked John Jackson if he normally went that fast (at one point we were going over 100 mph), and he talked about how in the eyes of law enforcement, it can be necessary. But not everyone agrees, and certainly it's scary to see a vehicle zooming down your road. I've put a call out to the State Police to give them the chance to explain this a little better, and I promise to put that up here when I hear back.

6. Why doesn't the U.S. Department of Transportation make distracted driving illegal? For a passenger car (as opposed to commercial vehicle), you're under the jurisdiction of the state in which you're driving. Several laws have come before Congress that would prevent distracted driving, but none have passed.

7. Where does New York fall on the spectrum of distracted driving laws? Check out this great map to learn other state's distracted driving laws. Some states only have bans on bus drivers or novice drivers; most states at least ban texting for all drivers. Montana and South Carolina don't have any bans on distracted driving right now.

8. Who drives distracted most often? Trooper Jackson says he pulls over all types of people for talking or texting while driving. Here's a statistic from the U.S. Government's distracted driving website:

10 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted.

9. What are the exceptions to the law? In New York, an exception to the ban on handheld phones is made if you're on the phone for an emergency, and talking with an emergency response operator, hospital, doctor, fire department, police department, etc.

10. Can my cell phone be seized? Not for breaking New York's Distracted Driving Law 1225.

Okay, so there are some questions that my friends, colleagues and I had. Now what are your distracted driving questions? I'll do my best to get them answered.

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