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Legislation to Crack Down on Cell Phone Use, Texting While Driving Clears Assembly

Quijano, Spencer, DeAngelo, Fuentes & Moriarty Measure Would Also Increase Fines

(TRENTON) – The General Assembly on Thursday approved a bipartisan measure sponsored on the Democratic side by Assembly members Annette Quijano, L. Grace Spencer, Wayne DeAngelo, Angel Fuentes and Paul Moriarty to crack down on the dangerous use of cell phones while driving.

The bill (S-69/A-1080) would stiffen penalties for motorists who get caught driving while talking on a hand-held device or texting, particularly repeat offenders.

“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. The bill approved today would increase that fine to a minimum of $200 and a maximum of $400 for a first offense, a minimum of $400 and a maximum of $600 for a second offense, and a minimum of $600 and a maximum of $800 for third or subsequent offenses.

The bill also permits the court at its discretion to impose a 90-day driver’s license suspension for anyone convicted of the offense for a third or subsequent time. In addition, third and subsequent offenders would receive 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.

“No situation is that urgent that it warrants endangering yourself or others while driving,” said DeAngelo (D-Mercer/Middlesex). “Many 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.”

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).

“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).

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.

“I’ve heard so many people admit to texting while driving, even though they know how dangerous it is and that voice inside their head is telling them not to do it,” said Moriarty. “Perhaps hiking the penalties for offenders will magnify that voice a bit more so they think twice before putting themselves and others at risk.”

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.

Lastly, the bill requires the chief administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) to develop a public education program on this offense, as well as the dangers of texting while driving. The fines would be collected by the court and distributed as follows: 50 percent of the fines would be divided equally between the county and municipality where the violation occurred, and 50 percent would go to the State Treasurer for allocation to the MVC for use in the public education program.

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

The bill was approved 72-2-1 by the General Assembly and now heads back to the Senate for further consideration.