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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New Jersey Bans Texting While Driving

Offenders Face $100 Fine

When you drive in New Jersey, keep your fingers on the steering wheel and off the keypad.

Recently, a new bill was passed allowing police to issue drivers with a $100 fine for talking or sending a text message on hand-held devices.

New Jersey and New York are two of five states where talking on a hand-held cell phone is reason enough to get pulled over. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Garden State is the first where text messaging on the road is a primary offense; police do not need another reason to pull a driver over.

Pam Fischer, the Director of New Jersey's Division of Highway Traffic Safety, said that police will be looking for telltale signs of distracted drivers, i.e. slow driving and the "cell-phone weave."

Drivers are still allowed to use their cell phones to contact police or emergency services, and may talk at any time with a hands-free device. Yet crash statistics suggest that those headsets and earpieces may not make conversations in the car any safer.

Almost half of New Jersey’s 3,580 phone-related crashes in 2006 involved a hands-free device, transportation officials said. Of the 11 fatal accidents involving a cell phone that year, five also involved a hands-free device.

According to Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, those figures are consistent with recent research showing no difference in crash risk between hand-held and hands-free cell phones.

"The conversation itself is the distraction. You are in another place when you are talking on the phone," said Rader.

"I see a car in the middle lane doing 50 miles per hour, and 99.9 percent of the time it's someone yakking on a cell phone," said trucker Lou Cataldo.

But how would police spot drivers typing out a message?

"If you're doing 75 miles per hour," Cataldo said, "the cop has to be right alongside to see you."

Since 2004, driving while using a hand-held cell phone has been illegal in New Jersey. The state became the second in the nation to pass a ban. But it was considered a secondary offense, something drivers could only be ticketed for if they were pulled over for another reason. New Jersey courts have recorded 16,000 tickets issued for the offense in the past year.

Fischer predicts that number will increase significantly now that drivers can be pulled over for cell phone use alone.

Across the nation, twenty-one state legislatures are considering some kind of ban on texting while driving this year.

Matt Sundeen, a transportation analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said, "it's a popular issue this year. We expect to see some movement on this."

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