Drivers face tougher NJ phone ban

February 28, 2008 1:42:16 PM PST
For New Jersey drivers, the message is clear: Keep your thumbs on the wheel and off the keypad. Starting Saturday, police can slap drivers with a $100 fine for talking or text messaging on hand-held devices.

New Jersey joins four other states, including neighboring New York, where talking on a hand-held cell phone is reason enough to get pulled over. New Jersey also becomes the first state where text messaging on the road is a primary offense, meaning police need no other reason to pull a driver over, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Pam Fischer, director of New Jersey's Division of Highway Traffic Safety, said officers will be on the lookout for telltale signs of distracted drivers - slow driving and the "cell-phone weave."

But enforcement of the text messaging law will be tough.

"It's difficult," Fischer said. "The law is designed to get those law-abiding folks to understand the danger inherent in these activities."

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

In 2006, nearly half of the 3,580 phone-related crashes in New Jersey also involved a hands-free device, according to transportation officials. Five of 11 fatal accidents involving a cell phone that year also involved a hands-free device.

Russ Rader, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said 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," said Rader.

"You are in another place when you are talking on the phone."

Trucker Lou Cataldo hopes the new law will cut down on the distracted drivers he sees all over the state.

"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," Cataldo said.

But Cataldo questioned how police would spot drivers typing out a message.

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

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

Fischer called those numbers minimal and suggested they would go up significantly now that drivers can be pulled over for cell phone use alone.

Twenty-one state legislatures this year are considering some kind of ban on texting while driving.

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

Since Jan. 1, Washington state drivers have been fined for texting on the road, but only if they are pulled over for another reason. Enforcement has been difficult; only six drivers have been fined in February.

"If we see them weaving and they're holding the phone high enough, we can get them," said Bob Calkins, a spokesman for the Washington State Patrol. "But if they're holding it down low, it's hard to cite them."

Drivers know it's a hard habit to break.

"At the outset, I was more guilty than anyone," said Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, who sponsored the bill to create a tougher ban.

He said he stopped reading e-mails on his Blackberry after his 12-year-old daughter scolded him. "That's when I realized - this is crazy."