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Codey-Girgenti Bill For Tougher Penalties For Hands-Free Cell Phone Violations Advances In Assembly

Measure Would Create Escalating Penalties to Reflect Danger of Texting While Driving

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senators Richard J. Codey and John A. Girgenti to address the epidemic of hands-free violations by drivers engaging in dangerous, and potentially lethal, distractions while behind the wheel was unanimously approved by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee today.

“This bill would put serious teeth in New Jersey’s hands-free cell phone law, and would make our efforts to combat distractions while driving the toughest in the nation,” said Senator Codey, D-Essex. “We cannot sit idly by while drivers put themselves and others at risk by engaging in dangerous behavior behind the wheel. This bill sends the message – hang up and drive, or face the consequences.”

“Distracted drivers pose a very serious and very real risk to themselves and the rest of the driving public,” said Senator Girgenti, D-Passaic and Bergen, and Chairman of the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. “New Jersey cannot ignore the dangers of the practice of texting behind the wheel. We need laws on the books that will act as a real deterrent to dangerous behavior and will hopefully make people think twice before they reach for their cell phone while driving.”

The bill, S-2181, would put in place a graduated penalty structure for repeat offenders who violate the State’s hands-free cell phone law more than once in a ten-year period – a motor vehicle violation that, under current law, carries a $100 fine for first and subsequent offenses. Under the bill as amended, first-time offenders would have to pay a fine of $200. Drivers convicted of a second offense within 10 years of the first would have to pay a fine of $400, and drivers convicted of a third and subsequent offenses within 10 years of the first would have to pay a fine of $600 and face driver’s license suspension of up to 90 days.

“While New Jersey has appropriately tough laws on the books regarding drinking while driving, the penalties for texting while driving are a mere slap on the wrist,” said Senator Codey. “Considering that some studies have shown that texting behind the wheel is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than getting behind the wheel drunk, an update of our hands-free cell phone law is long overdue.”

The lawmakers referenced a Car and Driver Magazine report that showed how long it took to hit the brake when sober (.54 seconds), drunk (add four feet), reading an e-mail (add 36 feet) and sending a text message (add 70 feet). The Transport Research Laboratory study showed that reaction times were 35% worse for drivers sending a text message, as opposed to 12% worse for those at the legal limit of intoxication and 21% worse for those under the influence of cannabis. A study prepared by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that text messaging took drivers’ focus away for 4.6 seconds, and a Clemson University simulator study found that text messaging and using an iPod caused drivers to leave their lanes ten percent more often.

In addition, a study recently released by the American Journal of Public Health noted that, if not for texting while driving, the number of deaths caused by distracted driving would have dropped every year from 2002 to 2007, from 4,611 deaths nationwide in 2001 to 1,925 in 2007. Instead, the study found a 19 percent increase in auto fatalities for every 1 million additional cell phone subscribers, and an increase to 5,870 deaths caused in 2008 due to distracted driving.

A poll conducted by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Consumer Reports which was announced last week noted that 63 percent of respondents under the age of 30 admitted to using a handheld phone while driving in the last 30 days. Among the under-30 respondents, only 36 percent were concerned about distracted driving, and only 30 percent thought the practice was dangerous.

Senators Codey and Girgenti said that despite the fact that law enforcement has written nearly 10,000 tickets per month since March of 2008 for violations of the hands-free cell phone law, some drivers continue to engage in dangerous behavior. According to a survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in 2008, half of the people polled said they used a cell phone while driving in the past 30 days. A Farleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll in 2009 found that 80% of New Jersey drivers surveyed said that they very often see people driving a car while holding a cell phone.

“This legislation isn’t intended to inconvenience law-abiding drivers, but rather, to save lives, and make people think twice before putting themselves and others at risk,” said Senator Girgenti. “A study conducted by Allstate Insurance noted that drivers who send text messages while driving are nine times more likely to cause a motor vehicle accident than drivers who pay attention to the road. We shouldn’t ignore the statistics, and must take action on this very serious threat to public safety.”

Senator Codey’s original bill making violations of the hands-free cell phone law a primary offense was signed into law in 2007. While cell-phone related traffic accidents have decreased in New Jersey by more than 10 percent from 2006 to 2008, the State Department of Transportation records indicate that more than 5,500 accidents involving people using hand-held cell phones were reported in that time period, resulting in more than 2,300 people being injured and 16 people being killed.

“This bill will hopefully send the message loud and clear to anyone who’s still ignoring the law and common sense – it’s time to put away the phone and pay attention to the road,” said Senator Codey, who added that any push for tougher hands-free penalties should be accompanied by a law enforcement crackdown on offenders. “Too many of our State’s residents have been injured or even killed because of distracted driving, and that number is only going to get worse unless we have laws on the books that address dangerous driving practices. This bill will hopefully force drivers to take our hands-free cell phone law seriously in the Garden State.”

The bill now heads to the Assembly Budget Committee before going to the full Assembly for further consideration.

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