Car Is “In Motion” When Stopped at Red Light For Purposes of New York’s Cell Phone Driving Statute

red light

Your best bet for avoiding a cell phone-related ticket in New York?  Put the thing down while the car is running – even when stopped at a red light.

One court (the Town Court of the Town of Brighton, Monroe County) recently held that a car stopped at a red light is still “in motion” for purposes of New York’s cell phone driving statute, VTL § 1225-c(2)(a).  The case is People v. Dakota Winterhawk, NYLJ 1202591122285, at *1 (decided on February 20, 2013).

VTL § 1225-c(2)(a) provides: ”[N]o person shall operate a motor vehicle upon a public highway while using a mobile telephone to engage in a call while such vehicle is in motion.”

In Winterhawk, a police officer testified that they observed the defendant behind the wheel of his car while stopped at a traffic light, and that defendant “was holding a cell phone in his right hand up to his ear.”  Defendant admitted that he was listening to voicemail while stopped at the light, and stated he put the phone down when the light changed.  Defendant was charged with violating VTL § 1225-c(2)(a).  

The court first noted that the statute requires that the car be “in motion”, but that “motion” is not defined in the statute.  It cited a dictionary’s definition of that term as “an act or process of moving” and its definition of “move” as “going from one point to another, and changing location.”

The issue, therefore, was:  “Is a vehicle in motion, as that term is used in [the statute], when waiting at a red light for the traffic signal to turn green?”

The court held that “the vehicle is in motion at that time” and found defendant guilty of the charge.  It reasoned:

Cell phones have been the cause of many accidents. We can all agree that driving is best performed with two hands on the wheel or, at the least, one hand on the wheel and the second at-the-ready and able to respond instantaneously to those unavoidable unpredictable, split second changes in circumstances on the road that require immediate defensive action to avoid an accident. Such circumstances come in many varieties and can include another car nearby that goes out of control, or a careless or reckless driver whose vehicle comes too close to another, or a child who unexpectedly darts out into the road; or black ice that causes skidding; or one of many other scenarios that instantaneously creates hazardous circumstances.

When a call is made while the vehicle is not in motion, the need to be poised to defend against these types of situations is very much diminished, as when the vehicle is parked in a lot, or the motorist pulls the car to the side of the road.

In the latter circumstances the vehicle is at a complete stop. Such situation is significantly different from a motorist who pauses at a red light for a matter of seconds or a minute or two, depending where in the cycle of changing from red to green the light was when the motorist approached. During that pause in driving, the motorist needs to remain alert to his immediate surroundings to address various possible traffic occurrences. For example, the driver may find it necessary or prudent to move the vehicle to dodge a reckless driver or an otherwise out-of-control vehicle, or to inch forward as traffic prepares for the upcoming green light, and to drive away expeditiously once the light changes. Considering the legislative purpose of the statute to protect against accidents caused by distracted, one-hand-down drivers, to say that the car is not in motion while paused at a red light does not comport with the reality of the situation, I therefore find defendant guilty of violating V&T Law Section 1225-c(2)(a), using a cell phone while driving without a hands-free device.

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