State Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) served as governor for more than a year, from 2004 to 2006, after the resignation of former Gov. Jim McGreevey.
Now back in the State Senate, Codey has made public safety a priority, and he chose for NJ Spotlight an often-overlooked threat: texting and driving.
We are in the midst of a technology revolution. It can be called “The Age of the Internet.” It seems as though nearly everyone is electronically tethered to the workplace, to their friends and family, and to a global network of websites and social media connections.
We see people talking on cellphones as they walk the aisles of the supermarket, engrossed in the content of electronic books or newspapers as they sit in coffee shops, texting while they watch sporting events or viewing online videos from almost anywhere. The ability to instantly communicate with others and to access information is advantageous for businesses, important for government, the military, and law enforcement.
It is helpful for all Americans in living their day-to-day lives and can be especially convenient for busy family members, allowing them to stay in touch with one another and to stay attuned to what’s going on in their communities and the world. Of course, the ability to immediately summon help in an emergency and to have the first responders equipped to respond quickly and to the right location is a crucial benefit.
But there are dangers to this proliferation of electronic devices when they are used by motorists behind the wheel.
Talking on a handheld cellphone or texting while driving is a distraction that can have fatal consequences. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2010 driver distraction was the cause of 18 percent of all fatal crashes, killing 3,092 people and leaving another 416,000 people injured. Handheld electronic devices, including cellphones, are especially dangerous while driving because they cause visual, manual, and cognitive distractions. Their use can cause drivers to take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel, and their minds off driving.
And the dangerous consequences of distracted driving are magnified for young people. In fact, more teenagers are killed on the road because of texting or talking on cellphones while driving than drunk driving.
Research shows that 40 percent of all American teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cellphone in a way that put people in danger, that text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted, and that 11 percent of drivers aged 18 to 20 who were involved in an automobile accident and survived admitted they were sending or receiving texts when they crashed.
The factors behind this trend help explain the causes. Of course, young people are more likely to use electronic devices. They grew up with them and have become accustomed to them — maybe too accustomed when it comes to their use while driving. Studies also show that 77 percent of young adults say they are capable of safely texting or talking while behind the wheel. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that approximately 58 percent of high school seniors nationwide said they had texted or emailed while driving during the previous month.
A driver’s attention is diverted from the road for at least five seconds when using a handheld device. If they are travelling at 55 miles per hour they will go the length of a football field without looking. This means the reaction time is compromised. Studies further show that a texting driver is more likely to swerve into other lanes and to travel closer to other vehicles than motorists under the influence of alcohol or marijuana.
No one is immune from the danger. The young driver, any passengers and other motorists on the road are in harms way in an accident. That is why New Jersey was one of the first states to enact a ban on talking or texting with a handheld device while driving. More and more states are doing the same.
And that is why I sponsored legislation enacted last June that put more teeth into the law. It established a graduated penalty structure for repeat offenders who violate the state’s hands-free cellphone law more than once in a 10-year period — a motor vehicle violation that now carries a $100 fine for each offense. It increases the fines to $200 to $400 for a first offense, $400 to $600 for a second offense, and $600 to $800 and a 90-day driver’s license suspension for the third or subsequent offenses. The fines would be divided equally between the county and municipality where the violation occurred and the Motor Vehicle Commission for use in a public education program.
We are also cracking down on those who flaunt the law and cause accidents with a new law that gives prosecutors the authority to charge motorists with assault or vehicular homicide if the defendant was operating a handheld wireless phone.
Vehicular homicide is generally a crime of the second degree, punishable by imprisonment of five to 10 years, a fine of up to $150,000, or both. 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, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. The penalty for a disorderly person’s offense is imprisonment for up to six months, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
We are also doing more to make motorists aware of the dangers of texting while driving with a new law that would place signs on the roads reminding drivers that it is illegal.
I believe we should do more. That is why I am sponsoring legislation that would expand the law against texting or talking on the road to include drivers at red lights, stop signs, or stuck in traffic. If you are caught drunk in these circumstances, you can be arrested. The same law should apply to texting or talking with hands that should be on the wheel. The added benefit of this is it would put us in line with federal standards, which would result in New Jersey getting federal funds to combat distracted driving.
The bottom line is that a motor vehicle can be a dangerous thing if it is operated by a driver who is distracted by texting or talking on a handheld device. The message should be clear: hang up and drive. If you don’t, we will get you.