NY Drivers Who Speed or Gab Could Pay More

The changes would eventually bring in $25 million a year

Getting caught speeding or gabbing on the cellphone while driving could become costlier under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposals.

Proposals to limit plea deals for flagrant speeders and an expansion of the $80 state surcharge on traffic tickets to cover common parking violations speeders plead down to were included in Cuomo's executive budget this week. People who talk and text on their cellphones while driving also could face stiffer fines under the measures being considered by the state Legislature.

The changes would initially bring in $16 million for New York state and $25 million a year after that. The Cuomo administration said the proposals also would make the roads safer.

The governor proposes that fines for talking or texting on the phone while driving be at least $50 and rise to a maximum of $550 for multiple violations. There are currently no minimum penalties. Fines are currently capped at $100 for talking and $150 for texting. Cuomo's budget memo said the stiffer fines will prod phone users to change their ways.

Some drivers asked about the potential for stiffer fines agreed — to a point.

"I think fines scare some people, but only for a little while," University at Albany student Amanda Cuerbo said. "I don't text while I drive, but when my mom or dad call, I'm going to pick it up."

The governor also is trying to tap the brakes on speeders taking plea deals, particularly for drivers clocked at more than 20 mph over the speed limit. Plea deals to lesser violations are common in local courts and spare drivers from accumulating too many violation points on their license. Of 393,000 "non-moving" convictions statewide tallied by the administration over a year, about 77,000 were pleaded down from speeding tickets and roughly 20,000 of those were initially for driving 20 mph over the speed limit.

Compiling 11 points in 18 months results in a license suspension, and convictions of speeding more than 20 mph over the limit cost six points.

Cuomo's bill would in most cases bar drivers charged with speeding more than 20 mph over the limit to plead down to violations with zero points. If a prosecutor reviews the evidence and sees a reason for a no-point plea for those drivers, they have to justify it in the court record. That way, persistent speeders wouldn't be able to escape fines and sanctions by repeatedly pleading to offenses that do not appear on a driving record, according to the Cuomo administration.

New York traffic lawyer Matthew J. Weiss, whose firm operates in local courts statewide, said municipalities that now allow pleas down to convictions on local ordinances could lose fine revenue under the change, since the new restriction would require pleas to state charges. He said the proposal would limit prosecutorial discretion, but "it's not so draconian that that I think it's going to dramatically make changes to most courts."

Others drivers caught speeding would have a harder time avoiding a state surcharge because the executive budget would impose an $80 surcharge on the sort of lesser, parking-related violations drivers often plead down to. New York already imposes an $80 surcharge on moving violations that are assessed on top of fines.

The changes could potentially affect some speeders' insurance rates if they are denied favorable plea deals. New York Insurance Association President Ellen Melchionni said her group supports Cuomo's measure not only because it could make the roads safer, but because it could give insurers a clearer picture of a driver's willingness to engage in risky behavior.

"The more information we can have about their true behavior is helpful," she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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