Measure Would Create Escalating Penalty Scheme to Reflect Danger of Texting While Driving
TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Richard J. Codey to address the epidemic of hands-free violations by drivers engaging in dangerous, and potentially lethal, distractions while behind the wheel was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee today by a vote of 7-4, with one abstention.
“Study after study has shown that texting while driving is more dangerous than getting behind the wheel drunk,” 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. “While New Jersey has penalties on the books which appropriately reflect the dangers of drunk driving, we provide only a slap on the wrist for drivers who endanger themselves and others by violating the State’s hands-free cell phone law. It’s time that we recognize the realities of this dangerous activity and penalize it accordingly.”
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.
“This bill would make New Jersey’s penalties for violations of our hands-free cell phone law the toughest in the nation,” said Senator Codey. “The current penalty structure has proven to be an ineffective deterrent against dangerous driving practices. It’s long past time we put some teeth in the law.”
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.
Last month, during the US Department of Transportation’s second annual Distracted Driving Summit, Secretary Ray LaHood called for increased action to combat “unsafe, irresponsible, (and) devastating” behavior.
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.
“We’re not out to inconvenience drivers through this legislation – we’re out to save lives,” said Senator Codey. “According to Allstate Insurance, drivers who send text messages while driving are nine times more likely to get into a motor vehicle accident than drivers who pay attention to the road. When distracted drivers put themselves and the rest of the public at risk, it’s time to take serious action against such distractions.”
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.
“Hopefully this law sends the message loud and clear to anyone who’s currently ignoring the State’s hands-free law – it’s time to put the phone away and pay attention to the road,” said Senator Codey, who added that any push for tougher penalties should also be accompanied by a law enforcement crackdown on offenders. “Too many of our State’s residents have been injured or killed because of distracted driving, and that number is only going to get worse as more and more drivers enter the cell phone age. This law will hopefully provide the deterrent needed to force drivers to take our hands-free cell phone law seriously in the Garden State.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.