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Program reduces penalty for texting while driving

Rochester, N.Y. -- A retired police officer and the Monroe County District attorney have teamed up to start a new court diversion program to help distracted drivers. The new program is the only one of its kind in the country, but it's quickly attracting a lot of customers.

Phil Schultz, owner and operator of Empire State Driving Instructors said, "It's been very successful so far and it's really a great idea. But right now, Monroe County is the only place that offers this opportunity."

All of the traffic courts in Monroe County have partnered with Schultz's program, except for the city of Rochester.

Schultz explained, "That goes through the Traffic Violation Bureau. It's five points - there is no downgrading it, there is no opportunity for education. It is what it is."

Until the retired Greece Police officer started the class in March, drivers had to either take the ticket and the five-point penalty, or try to fight it in court. But now, Empire State Driving Instructors offers an alternative.

For $50, people can sign up to take the four-hour class to learn about the laws and dangers of distracted driving and reduce the penalty.

"They come to the course, they go back with the proof that they've completed the course and they're then allowed to plead to that lesser charge," said Schultz.

Knocked down to a failure to obey a traffic control device ticket, the penalty is reduced to a two-point violation.

"It's pretty much the most generic, basic ticket in the vehicle and traffic law."

He said it makes a big difference on a person's driving record and, hopefully, impacts decisions made behind the wheel.

"I know from the feedback that I've received from students that it has an impact on them. Tonight these people will walk out of there with the changed attitude about distracted driving."

Most people know the dangers, but about two-thirds of drivers still admit to using a cell phone behind the wheel. Frank Lentine, who got pulled over on the highway in June, might be one of those drivers.

"The trooper may have thought that I had dropped the phone and was looking for it and I got written up for one," he said, adding that the violation almost cost him his license.

It's been about a year since New York upped the penalty from three to five points for distracted driving. Schultz said the change in the points system has crushed drivers.

"Just the cell phone ticket, that's almost half the points it takes to lose your license -that's a lot."

At 12 points, drivers lose their license - and those points can add up fast.

"So you have one speeding ticket, maybe you weren't paying attention and went through a stop sign or a stop light and boom, now with that cell phone ticket your license is gone."

The five points are deducted after 18-months but the expenses, with fines and insurance rates can impact drivers for several years.

At six points, the Department of Motor Vehicles start to charge driver's assessment fee to make sure license is still valid. Schultz tells us, "That lasts for a minimum of three years; they can charge you $200-$300 a year just to look at your license."

About 350 distracted driving tickets are written in Monroe County each month, and Schultz said more than half of the people ticketed have started to take his course. With so much success, he and the DA are working to expand the program to nearby counties. He said, "It gives them an opportunity to learn and understand why distracted driving is such an issue and such a problem."

Schultz said part of the problem is people still don't fully understand the law-It's not just texting and driving; the use of any portable electronic device in the driver's seat, whether it's in your lap or in your hand, can get you pulled over.

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Washington Times