Have you ever been a passenger in a vehicle with someone who was texting and driving?
Stephen Walling, owner of Golden Crown Driving School in White Plains, says this is a question he frequently asks unlicensed students during their mandatory five-hour course.
"Usually about half the class raises their hand. Many students tell me they were scared," Walling said. "I think young people are aware of the dangers."
But being aware of the dangers isn't always a deterrent to engaging in distracted driving.
"I get a good number of people telling me that they can text without looking at their phone, and that it's okay to do while at a red light or a stop sign," Walling said. "Some kids tell me how they or their friends will drive with their knees while texting, or use their wrist to drive while they're texting."
Carlos Paz, a drivers education instructor at Formula One Driving School in Mamaroneck, said that many of his students have reached for their phones to view a text while practicing driving.
"They'll want to look down to see what [the text] says," he explained. "When they get to a stop light they'll reach for the phone. If they do that while I'm in the car, imagine what they're doing by themselves. I tell them, 'You don't need the phone while you're driving, just put it away'."
Multiple surveys and studies have found that a large population of teens have viewed or sent texts and emails while behind the wheel. A 2009 American Automobile Association (AAA) survey found that more than half of teen drivers admitted to texting while driving.
AAA Executive Director Paul Steely White said, "Nobody should be texting or updating Facebook while piloting a two-ton piece of machinery on public streets."
AAA has launched a campaign to pass texting bans in every state by 2013. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia consider texting and driving a primary offense. Four states, including New York, consider it a secondary offense.
A 2009 Pew Internet phone survey of 800 teens ages 12 to 17 found that 48 percent of those surveyed said they had been a passenger in a vehicle while the driver was texting. Of respondents old enough to drive, 26 percent admitted to texting and driving.
In 2010, State Farm Insurance conducted a survey of 697 teenagers through Harrison Interactive that looked at whether or not they thought texting while driving was as dangerous as drinking and driving. According to the survey, teen respondents said they thought they would be more likely to get into an accident while drinking and driving, versus texting and driving.
Of those teens ages 14 to 17 who were already driving or planning on getting their license, 36 percent said they could be killed in a car accident if they regularly sent texts while driving, while 55 percent said that drinking and driving could be deadly.
The survey also found that 78 percent of respondents thought they could get into an accident while drinking and driving, versus 63 percent who agreed that the same danger held true while texting and driving.
PJ Angarano, a 19-year-old Harrison resident and 2009 Harrison Central School District (HCSD) graduate, says that although the drinking and driving message is clear, many people his age don't recognize the dangers of texting and driving.
"I think most people consider it less dangerous than drinking and driving. They don't think twice about texting or calling people while they're driving. It's just normal," he said.
Angarano said that HCSD didn't include texting while driving in the high school curriculum while he was a student, but the dangers of drinking and driving were discussed in class lectures and presentations.
"Nothing is necessary to risk your life or someone else's life to answer somebody's text while you're driving," he said.
While current New York State law designates texting while driving as a secondary offense, a bill that passed the Senate and Assembly last week would institute stiffer penalties for those found guilty of texting or using other electronic devices while behind the wheel. It also mandates that cell phone safety be included in education courses for new drivers.
While HCSD officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment on the issue, Monica Miles, the district's spokeswoman, said that texting while driving is not addressed in the summer driver's education courses offered at the high school.
Miles said the courses cover the basics of driving, but do not address safety issues that are typically covered in five-hour courses, like those offered at the Golden Crown Driving School. The district hires an instructor from PAS Auto School in Tarrytown, who also did not respond to inquiries from Patch asking if texting and driving education is included in the curriculum.
The new bill would punish drivers who text by a fine of up to $150, and has the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has introduced a similar bill that would put three points on the license of those found guilty of texting while driving.
For the first six months after earning their drivers license, new drivers are held under New Driver Probation by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. If such a driver is found guilty of committing two moving violations, or one serious violation, during that time period their license is suspended for 60 days.