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Assembly Panel Advances Quijano, Spencer, DeAngelo, Fuentes Measure to Increase Fines

A measure sponsored by Assembly members Annette Quijano, L. Grace Spencer, Wayne DeAngelo, and Angel Fuentes cracking down on the use of cell phones while driving received approval by an Assembly panel on Monday.

The bill (A-3154), released by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, would increase fines for motorists who get caught more than once while driving and talking on a hand-held device or texting.

“We need to send a louder message that cell phone use while driving is a serious, and often deadly, hazard,” said Quijano (D-Union). “Most people know it’s wrong and have probably had a few scares themselves, but they continue to do it because they think they can get away with it. Hopefully stiffer penalties will change our way of thinking.”

“Cell phone use while driving, particularly texting, has become almost an epidemic these days, a very dangerous epidemic,” said Spencer (D-Essex/Union). “It’s our hope that the increased fines and suspension imposed by this bill will act as a further deterrent to these dangerous habits.”

Under current law, the fine for using a hand-held electronic device while driving is $100. This bill would increase the fine for a first offense to $200; the fine for a second offense to $250-400 a second offense; and to $500-600 for third or subsequent offenses. The bill would also impose a 60-90 day driver’s license suspension for persons convicted of the offense for a third or subsequent time, at the court’s discretion, as well as a three motor vehicle penalty points.
Quijano noted that a 2009 survey by AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety found that two out of three respondents admitted to talking on their cell phones while driving and one out of five admitted to reading or sending text messages while driving.

The sponsors also pointed to recent studies which have shown that texting while driving is riskier than driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. One study by the Transport Research Laboratory found that the reaction time of motorists who were texting dramatically decreased by 35 percent, much worse than those who drank alcohol at the legal limit (12 percent slower) or those who had used marijuana (21 percent slower).

In addition, the research found that drivers who sent or read text messages were more prone to drift out of their lane, with steering control by texters 91 percent poorer than that of drivers devoting their full concentration to the road.

“No situation is that urgent that it warrants endangering yourself or others while driving,” said DeAngelo (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “Most of us got by much of our lives without phones in the car. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to put that habit on hold while we’re driving now.”

“Think about how many times you’re driving and you see someone looking down, not paying attention to the road, and they’re busy texting. All it takes is a split second with your eyes off the road to cause a serious accident or even a death,” said Fuentes (D-Camden/Gloucester).

However, under the bill, if a person is convicted of a second offense more than 10 years after the first offense they would be treated as a first time offender for sentencing purposes. Similarly, a person convicted of a third offense would be treated as a second-time offender for sentencing purposes if the third offense occurs more than ten years after the second offense.

The bill would go into effect on the first day of the 13th month following enactment.