Assembly Approves Tougher Penalties For Drivers Who Text

TRENTON – The General Assembly on Thursday approved a bipartisan measure  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 Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), a sponsor of the bill. “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.”

“When a person is illegally using a cell phone or texting, they are distracted and pose a serious risk to other drivers and pedestrians,” said Assemblywoman Nancy F. Muñoz (R-Union, Morris and Somerset), another sponsor of the bill. “It only takes a moment of inattention to cause a lifetime of irreparable harm for someone or their family. Respecting and abiding by the rules of the road is not an option, it is mandatory.”

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.

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.

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.

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