N.J. Could Join States Penalizing Drivers Using Cell Phones

June 15, 2007

New Jersey could become the fourth state to allow police to ticket drivers whenever they’re seen using a hand-held cell phone while driving.

An Assembly committee on Thursday was slated to consider a Senate-approved plan to strengthen the state’s 2004 ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving. That ban only allows police to ticket a driver if they’re stopped for another infraction.

But the bill would allow police to ticket any driver using a hand-held cell phone while driving.

Only California, Connecticut and New York have such laws, as does Washington, D.C., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

As they do now, New Jersey drivers would face fines of up to $250 for violating the law.

“It’s all about safety,” said Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, a bill sponsor.

The committee will also consider another bill to ban the sending of text messages while driving. Washington recently became the first state to adopt such a law.

Both bills aim to curb driver distractions.

A 2006 study by the federal government and Virginia Tech found nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved driver inattention.

Meanwhile, a recent survey by Nationwide Insurance estimated 73 percent of drivers use cell phones.

NCSL, in a recent report, found states have had difficulties tracking cell phone use in crashes, but noted a 2002 study in California determined cell phones were cited in 11 percent of inattention-related crashes, more than any other factor.

“There’s a lot of distractions, but cell phones are one of the biggest distractions and the cause of many, many accidents,” Codey said.

Safety advocates said New Jersey needs legislation tackling all driver distractions.

“We continue to believe that it’s the conversation, not the cell phone, that causes distraction,” said David Weinstein, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “AAA would be comfortable supporting an all-encompassing driver distraction bill.”

A 2006 University of Utah study found drivers who talk on cell phones — whether it be hand-held or hands-free — are as impaired as drunken drivers.

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