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Codey-Girgenti Tougher Penalties For Hands-Free Cell Phone Violations Approved In Committee

Measure Would Create Escalating Penalty Scheme to Reflect Danger of Texting While Driving

TRENTON – Noting that many traffic safety advocates recognize driving while intoxicated to be less lethal than driving while texting, Senators Richard Codey and John Girgenti have advanced legislation which would make New Jersey’s texting-while-driving law the toughest in the nation and upgrade the penalty structure for repeat offenders in order to make New Jersey’s roadways safer for law-abiding citizens. The bill was approved by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee today by a vote of 4-1.

“Despite public outreach, despite the dangers, despite police crack-downs, we still see drivers on our roads ignoring common sense and violating the State’s hands-free cell phone law,” said Senator Codey, D-Essex, who sponsored the law making the use of a mobile phone without a hands-free device while driving a primary offense. “Distracted drivers pose a serious risk to themselves and to others on our roadways, even more than drivers who get behind the wheel drunk. It’s time that we get serious about our State’s hands-free cell phone law, and the drivers who endanger themselves and others by ignoring that law.”

“If you look at the statistics regarding motor vehicle accidents and cell phone use, the need for tougher penalties is apparent,” said Senator Girgenti, D-Passaic and Bergen, and chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee. “Allstate insurance estimates that drivers who text behind the wheel are nine times more likely to get into a motor vehicle accident than someone who is obeying the rules of the road. We need to remove this danger from our roadways and ensure better compliance with our state’s hands-free cell phone law, and tougher penalties will accomplish that.”

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 a 90-day driver’s license suspension.

“Hopefully, the tougher fines and the potential license suspension in this bill will make drivers think twice before texting behind the wheel,” said Senator Codey. “Various transportation studies have compared driving drunk with driving while texting, and have found overwhelming evidence that texting impairs a driver’s reaction time far worse than alcohol. It’s time that we treat this violation like the dangerous activity it really is.”

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. Additionally, a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Study 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.

Both legislators 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 isn’t a matter of inconveniencing drivers – it’s a matter of saving lives,” said Senator Girgenti. “New Jersey currently has tough drunk driving laws on the books, and I think that’s completely appropriate, given the dangers of drunk driving to everyone on the road. However, driving while texting is just as dangerous, if not more so, and we need to evolve our laws with evolving technology.”

Senator Codey’s 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.

“By making our State’s hands-free laws the toughest in the country, we’re sending a message to drivers from Cape May to High Point to hang up and drive,” said Senator Codey, who added that any push for tougher penalties should also be accompanied by a law enforcement crackdown on offenders. “New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation, and that means that at any given moment, there are more cars on the road than anywhere else in the United States. Drivers have to be focused on the road, rather than on their cell phones, to avoid potentially fatal motor vehicle accidents.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

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