Cell Phone and Texting Tickets Plummeted Last Year, But Accidents Did Not

By: Adam H. Rosenblum Esq.  Published: 12/6/21

man texting while he is driving

The U.S. experienced a 13% decline in total traffic in 2020 due to the societal changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. This drop in total traffic led to a sharp decrease in the number of traffic tickets being issued, in particular for cell phone and texting violations in New York. 

According to data from the New York State DMV, police wrote half as many tickets for using a cell phone without a hands-free device in 2020 as they did in 2019. Last year saw drivers receive just 35,257 tickets for this offense, compared with 71,059 the year prior. Tickets for texting saw a similar drop, going from 109,026 in 2019 to just 58,737 in 2020, a 46% decrease. 

This drop-off in tickets is greater than the decline for many other ticket types. Overall, traffic tickets in New York fell by 35% last year. Speeding in particular, one of the most common tickets issued year over year, fell by just 16%. One major reason for this is that, with fewer vehicles on the road, drivers had more opportunities to increase their speeds.

Where Cell Phone and Texting Tickets Declined the Most

It should come as no surprise that the bulk of all cell phone and texting tickets are issued in New York City. The city is home to more than 40% of the state’s population, some of the state’s most popular tourist attractions, and the highest concentration of employers. 

The five boroughs—Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island—were the top five counties for texting tickets respectively in 2019. In 2019, about 66% of texting tickets (71,962) were issued in New York City, along with 54% of cell phone tickets (38,275). 

However, by 2020, the number of cell phone tickets in the five boroughs fell by 58% to just 16,034, while texting phone tickets dropped by 53% to 33,708. Overall, the city’s share of cell phone and texting tickets decreased to 45% and 57%, respectively.

Other counties that typically issue large volumes of cell phone and texting tickets, including Erie, Albany, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester, also saw substantial decreases in the number of drivers ticketed for these violations.

Decrease in Texting Tickets in NY by County 2019 - 2020

County20192020% Change
STATEN ISLAND5,5211,853-66.4%

Decrease in Cell Phone Tickets by County 2019 - 2020

County20192020% Change
STATEN ISLAND2,366753-68.2%

Cell Phone- and Texting-related Accidents Largely Unchanged

It seems the reduction in tickets for cell phone use and texting while driving was not the result of fewer drivers having committed the violation. The evidence of this is that the number of accidents in which a hand-held cell phone was a factor was nearly the same between 2019 and 2020. 

Accidents in which using a cell phone was a factor dipped by just 3%, from 843 in 2019 to 817 in 2020. In fact, there were more cell-phone-related accidents in 2020 than in any other year in the past decade except 2019. 

Historically, New York has seen very few crashes in which texting while driving was a factor. In 2019, just 72 accidents listed texting as a factor. In 2020, there were only 57 such crashes, the fewest since 2011.

What Does This Mean?

Cell phone use and texting violations may have been de-prioritized by police during the pandemic. After all, together these offenses comprise just 5% of total traffic tickets most years and are a factor in fewer than 1% of all traffic accidents year over year. By comparison, speeding typically accounts for around 20% of all traffic tickets issued and is a factor in approximately 10% of crashes. This could explain why speeding tickets dropped the least (in terms of percentage), while cell phone and texting tickets showed the largest declines, particularly among those issued by the NYPD. 

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