Panel seeks ways to keep CT motorists’ eyes on the road

Cellphones may grab the headlines, but they’re just part of a technological explosion that distracts motorists from the road.

With televisions, global positioning systems and onboard computers capable of reading text messages aloud, a new state panel is trying to decide where Connecticut lawmakers should draw the line.

“Just because it happens to be on your dashboard doesn’t mean you’re paying attention,” Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said during Monday’s first meeting of the Distracted Driving Task Force. “Multi-tasking is not always a positive thing.”

The task force, which will submit recommendations to the General Assembly when the regular 2014 session starts in February, scheduled a Dec. 9 fact-finding hearing to learn from experts on the issue.

Boucher, who also is the ranking GOP senator on the Transportation Committee, wants that review to include a look at New York’s new campaign to steer motorists to highway rest stops when they feel the urge to text.

Earlier this fall New York installed nearly 300 signs on its major highways, notifying motorists of the proximity of the nearest public rest area.

The “Texting Zone” awareness campaign came shortly after N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an extensive enforcement crackdown by state police that included a 365 percent increase in tickets issued for illegal activity on the highways.

Connecticut’s Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Melody Currey said that while the New York campaign is interesting, taking the same approach in Connecticut could create new challenges.

The state’s largest trucking association has complained for years that Connecticut needs to expand its contingent of 30 public rest areas or service plazas.

“That’s a huge issue for them because there aren’t enough rest areas for (truckers) now,” Currey said.

The DOT recommended 12 years ago that Connecticut arrange for about 1,200 more rest area parking spaces, primarily for truckers needing a place to rest while on long trips.

Connecticut legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy approved two measures this spring to discourage illegal cellphone use.

Starting last month, the fines for violations increase from:

  • $125 to $150 for the first offense;
  • $250 to $300 for the second offense;
  • $400 to $500 for each subsequent offense.

The state also now imposes at least one point on the record of all drivers guilty of illegal cellphone use.

And cellphone use now is banned even when the driver is operating a vehicle at a temporary standstill, such as at an intersection stoplight.

Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who co-chairs the transportation committee and also serves on the task force, said the latter panel also should hear from Connecticut’s police chiefs and state troopers about the how the tougher standards are being enforced.

“There can be times when officers are reluctant to issue those more severe fines,” he said.

Aaron Swanson, a program manager in the Department of Transportation’s Highway Safety Office, said the new anti-texting law has created an unintended challenge on Connecticut roads.

Some motorists seeking not to text or talk on the phone while driving, are pulling off the highway in unsafe areas to talk or send messages, he said.

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