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Lesniak Bill To Provide For Consideration Of Cell Phone Use In Vehicular Homicide, Assault Proceedings Advances

‘Kulesh and Kubert’s Law’ Would Ensure Violation of Hands-Free Cell Phone Law Viewed as Proof Driver Was Driving Recklessly

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Raymond J. Lesniak which would direct New Jersey’s courts to consider use of a hand-held cell phone while driving as proof of reckless driving during vehicular homicide or assault by auto proceedings was approved by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee today by a vote of 4-0, with one abstention.

“Unfortunately, too many drivers on New Jersey’s roads still haven’t realized that distracted driving is dangerous driving,” said Senator Lesniak, D-Union. “In the two cases which serve as inspiration for this bill, the families of Helen Kulesh and David and Linda Kubert know all too well that the moment you reach for your cell phone while behind the wheel, you put other, law-abiding drivers at risk. New Jersey drivers need to realize that failure to follow the hands-free cell phone law has real consequences for themselves and others.”

The bill, S-1950, would provide that, when there’s proof that a defendant was using a mobile device and operating a motor vehicle in violation of the State’s handheld cell phone ban, it would constitute reckless driving for the purposes of a death by automobile or assault by automobile court hearing. A person is found guilty of vehicular homicide or assault by auto when he or she is found to have driven a motor vehicle recklessly.

Vehicular homicide typically carries a penalty of imprisonment of five to ten years, a fine of up to $150,000, or both. If serious injury occurs, assault by auto can carry penalties of up to 18 months imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. If no serious injury has occurred, assault by auto usually carries penalties consistent with a disorderly persons offense – imprisonment of up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.

Under current law, proof that a defendant was driving after having been without sleep for more than 24 hours could constitute reckless driving in vehicular homicide or assault by auto court proceedings. Proof that a defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs automatically triggers a finding of reckless driving in court proceedings.

“Study upon study has shown that distracted driving resulting from the use of a handheld cell phone is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than drunk driving,” said Senator Lesniak. “Our laws are appropriately severe on drunk drivers, particularly when they hurt or kill someone else as a result of their impairment. We ought to have legal parity when someone puts others in danger by focusing their attention on a mobile device, rather than on the road ahead of them.”

Senator Lesniak noted that the bill is named “Kulesh and Kubert’s Law” after three New Jersey residents who were involved in accidents caused by drivers in violation of the State’s hands-free cell phone law. Helen Kulesh was an 89-year-old resident of Elizabeth who was killed when a distracted driver struck her in the crosswalk. David and Linda Kubert, from Dover Township in Morris County, each lost a leg when their motorcycle was hit by a pickup truck driven by a teen driver who was using a handheld cell phone.

“The tragic cases of Helen Kulesh and David and Linda Kubert illustrate the seriousness of distracted driving while using a handheld cell phone,” said Senator Lesniak. “The Kulesh family and Mr. and Mrs. Kubert live everyday with the knowledge that, had the drivers in question only followed the law, the tragic circumstances around their auto accidents would not have occurred. This bill puts necessary teeth in New Jersey’s hands-free cell phone law when someone is injured or killed by a distracted driver.”

The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee before going to the full Senate for consideration.