TRENTON – Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa and Division of Highway Traffic Safety Acting Director Gary Poedubicky today joined traffic safety leaders nationwide during “Distracted Driving Awareness” month to renew their calls for motorists to put their distractions away and just concentrate on driving.
“Distracted driving is an epidemic on New Jersey’s roadways, and we’re urging motorists throughout the state to do their part and just hang up and drive,” Attorney General Chiesa said. “Texting and cell phone use while driving is extremely dangerous, and we know simply getting drivers to turn their phones off when they get behind the wheel will make our roads significantly safer.”
Chiesa said research has shown that a texting driver presents the same threat on the roads as a drunk driver.
“We know it’s wrong and irresponsible to drive drunk, and there are severe legal and personal consequences that accompany a drunk driving arrest. There’s equivalent danger here between drunk driving and distracted driving, and I believe we should approach the issues with the same seriousness,” Chiesa said. “Decades of experience with drunk driving and getting people to buckle up has taught us it takes a consistent combination of public education, effective enforcement, and the collective efforts of local, state, and national advocates to put a dent in the problem.”
Acting Director Poedubicky said text messaging is of heightened concern because it combines three types of distraction – visual, manual and cognitive. “In other words, texting involves taking your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, and your mind off the task of driving,” he said.
Poedubicky said drivers should turn off electronic devices and put them out of reach before driving. He said passengers should speak up when their driver uses an electronic device while driving and offer to make the call for the driver, so his or her full attention always stays on driving.
The Division of Highway Traffic Safety has estimated that distracted driving was responsible for up to 160,000 motor vehicle crashes in New Jersey in 2011, and the National Safety Council believes one of every four traffic crashes is caused by a driver using a cell phone to talk or text.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported last year 3,000 deaths nationwide from distraction-affected crashes – crashes in which drivers lost focus on the safe control of their vehicles due to manual, visual or cognitive distraction. NHTSA’s observational surveys showed that more than 100,000 drivers are texting at any given daylight moment, and more than 600,000 drivers are holding phones to their ears while driving.
Under a law passed in 2012 that strengthened penalties for certain crashes involving distracted drivers, proof that a defendant was operating a hand-held wireless telephone while driving a motor vehicle may give rise to the presumption that the defendant was engaged in reckless driving. Prosecutors are empowered to charge the offender with committing vehicular homicide or assault when a crash occurs from reckless driving. Vehicular homicide is generally a crime of the second degree, punishable by imprisonment of five to ten years, and a fine of up to $15,000. Assault by auto is a crime of the fourth degree if serious bodily injury occurs and a disorderly persons offense if bodily injury occurs. A fourth-degree crime is punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment, and a fine of up to $10,000. The penalty for a disorderly persons offense is imprisonment for up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
New Jersey’s primary cell phone law went into effect on March 1, 2008. Motorists violating New Jersey’s law face a $100 fine plus court costs and fees.