MULLICA HILL – Attorney General Jeffrey S. Chiesa today spoke with 800 Clearview Regional High School students about the dangers of distracted driving on what has been proclaimed by Gov. Chris Christie as “No Texting While Driving Day” in New Jersey.
Chiesa was joined on stage by AT&T Mid-Atlantic President Mike Schweder, whose company has made a nationwide push to end texting and driving, and Angela Donato, who has become a traffic safety advocate after her sister, Toni Donato-Bolis, and her unborn nephew, were killed in a crash by a distracted driver.
“Research shows that sending just one text while driving can make you as dangerous as a drunk driver,” Chiesa said. “The cognitive impairment is the same. 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 is a stigma attached to drunk driving.”
“Over the past several decades we as a society have learned to view drunk driving differently. This is due to law enforcement initiatives and education, which have rightfully cast drunk drivers as a menace to society. Society’s contempt for a texting driver hasn’t yet materialized. But it should, given the similar dangers and outcomes between the two.”
AT&T has called for Sept. 19 to be a national day of no texting while driving and Gov. Christie signed a proclamation to affirm its efforts in New Jersey. To commemorate the date, Schweder urged the assembled students to make a lifetime commitment never to text and drive again.
“We believe the tragedies caused by texting and driving have reached epidemic proportions,” Schweder said. “More than 100,000 crashes a year involve drivers who are texting, causing life-changing injuries and deaths,” he said, citing National Safety Council statistics.
“Those accidents and deaths are unacceptable – and totally avoidable. That’s why AT&T is committed to putting an end to texting and driving, and why our CEO has called for September 19 to be a national day of no texting while driving.”
“I urge you to reach out to all your parents, friends, family and acquaintances,” said Schweder. “It’s up to each one of us – we must stand up, sign the pledge, set an example and save lives.”
At the event, Schweder presented “The Last Text,” a powerful AT&T documentary that features family and friends who have lost loved ones to distracted driving.
Perhaps no one knows the real-life tragedy of distracted driving more than Angela Donato. Donato’s sister, Toni Donato-Bolis, was nine-months pregnant with her unborn son RJ when she was killed in June 2011 in a motor vehicle accident caused by a driver using a cell phone. Since then, Angela has worked as a safety advocate and established the Toni Donato-Bolis and Baby RJ Foundation to educate people about distracted driving. She also testified in front of the Legislature earlier this year about the “Kulesh, Kubert and Bolis’ Law,” which partially bears her sister’s name, and was signed into law by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno in July.
Under the new law, 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 an accident 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 $150,000. 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.
“The choices that we make from day to day do not just affect you but they affect everyone around you,” Donato said. “Sharing my sister’s story opens the opportunity to save lives, not to scare, upset or worry anyone.”
“You have to spread the word and make the change. It takes one second to change a life and will take a lifetime to recover, just ask anyone in my family.”
The Division of Highway Traffic Safety commissioned a study by Fairleigh-Dickinson University which found that 20 percent of all drivers admitted to sending a text while driving, but about 80 percent said they had seen someone else sending a text.
“Despite the strengthened laws and senseless tragedies, New Jersey drivers simply are not getting the message about distracted driving,” said Division of Highway Traffic Safety Acting Director Gary Poedubicky. “We’re working with our partners to deliver that message.”
But that study has also found that about 60 percent of young drivers admitted to sending a text while driving, which was the highest percentage among all age groups. And 93 percent of those young motorists also report seeing other drivers sending text messages.
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.