TRENTON – Senator Richard J. Codey last week introduced legislation that would allow law enforcement officers to scan drivers’ cell phones following an accident and to enforce strict penalties for refusal to surrender the device.
“Distracted driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving. We need to do more to ensure that a driver’s attention is on the road and not on his or her cell phone,” said Senator Codey (D-Essex and Morris). “Policy makers and road safety experts are reaching back to tried and tested strategies to treat distracted driving like drunk driving, and we need to do the same here in New Jersey.”
The bill would allow law enforcement officers to scan the cell phones of drivers who have been involved in a motor vehicle accident resulting in death, bodily injury, or property damage and who have in their possession a wireless phone or electronic communication device at or near the time of the accident.
The bill would require the driver to surrender the phone or device to the officer for a field test, which would consist of the use an electronic scanning device approved by the Attorney General to determine whether the driver was using the phone in violation of current law at or near the time of the accident. The scanner, under development by at least one company, would not include the content or origin of any communication, image, electronic data, or game contained on the phone or device.
“If we are going to deter people from continuing to use their phones while driving, we have to implement and enforce stricter measures,” said Senator Codey. “If you know your phone will be scanned to see if you were using your phone while driving, and that you will be subject to hefty penalties and lose your license, you simply won’t do it.”
Under the bill, refusal to surrender the phone or device to the officer would result in the same penalties as those imposed on a driver who refuses to submit to a breath test under current DUI laws. For a first offense, a person would be subject to a license revocation for seven months to one year and a fine of $300 to $500, with subsequent offenses carrying higher penalties.
If the violation occurred while on school property or driving through a school crossing, increased penalties for refusal would include license suspension for one to two years and a fine of $600 to $1,000 for a first offense, with subsequent offenses carrying higher penalties.
While the bill imposes strict penalties for refusal to surrender a phone or device, it does not allow a field test to be conducted forcibly or against physical resistance by the driver. Rather, in such instances, a law enforcement officer must inform the driver of the consequences of refusal.
The bill would also require the Attorney General to develop and implement a public education campaign to inform the public about the provisions of the bill.
New Jersey first banned driving while using a handheld device in 2004, with the violation initially deemed as a secondary offence. Four years later, in 2008, New Jersey’s law was strengthened to allow law enforcement officers to pull drivers over just for using a handheld device. Over the years, In July 2014, fines for talking or texting on a hand-held wireless communications device increased in a further attempt to curb distracted driving.
According to crash record data collected by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, a total of 1,758 crashes involved the use of handheld devices while 2,127 involved the use hands-free devices in 2014.
Senator Codey has called for stricter cell phone penalties to serve as stronger deterrents for drivers who continue to use their devices while driving. “More must be done, and this bill is one step forward in that direction,” he added.
A similar bill has been introduced in New York earlier this year.