Measure Would Create Escalating Penalty Scheme to Reflect Danger of Texting While Driving
TRENTON – Senator Richard J. Codey today unveiled 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.
“We continue to see drivers swerving in and out of their lane as they tap away on their mobile devices,” 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. “Even though most New Jersey drivers are familiar with the State’s hands-free cell phone law, there are still some who simply choose to ignore the law and basic common sense, and continue to endanger everyone else on the road. This bill puts teeth in our hands-free law by creating tough penalties as a deterrent for repeat offenders.”
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. Under the bill, first-time offenders would have to pay a fine of $100 – the amount set for a violation under the current law. However, drivers convicted of a second offense within 10 years of the first would have to pay a fine of $250, and drivers convicted of a third and subsequent offenses within 10 years of the first would have to pay a fine of $500 and face a 60-day driver’s license suspension.
“These tougher, graduated penalties will hopefully make people think twice before they violate the law and become a danger to themselves and others on our roads,” said Senator Codey. “Recent studies from Car and Driver Magazine and the Transport Research Laboratory have shown that hand held cell phone use actually impairs drivers’ reaction times more than if they were driving drunk. We need to get out the message about just how dangerous distracted driving can be.”
The Essex County lawmaker 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.
Senator Codey’s proposal has already garnered support from driver safety organizations, such as AAA New Jersey.
“The increased penalties contained in this legislation reflect the danger that distracted driving poses on our roadways,” said Cathleen Lewis, Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations for AAA New Jersey Automobile Club. “Removing distractions, such as texting while driving, ensures that drivers stay focused on the task at hand – staying safe on the roads.”
Senator Codey 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.
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.
“It’s time to send the message to New Jersey drivers: hang up and drive, or face very serious penalties,” said Senator Codey, who added that any push for tougher penalties should also be accompanied by a law enforcement crackdown on offenders. “Most of us respect the rules of the road and obey traffic laws which are put in place for our own protection, as well as the rest of the people around us as we drive. But for those folks who continue to ignore the State’s hands-free cell phone law, you’re on notice – tougher penalties are coming, and it’s time to focus on the road, not your text messages.”
The bill is pending consideration in the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee.