TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senators Fred H. Madden and Donald Norcross to create a task force to address the epidemic of drivers engaged in dangerous and potentially lethal distractions behind the wheel was approved today by the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee. The legislation is the latest in a series of measures legislators have worked on in Trenton to reduce motor vehicle related injuries and deaths resulting from activities such as texting and talking without a hands-free device while driving.
“We have done extensive work to strengthen our laws and penalties related to distracted driving, but it is clear that we have to do more. Far too many people continue to use their electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle and tragedies continue to occur each day,” said Senator Madden (D-Gloucester/Camden). “We have to attack this issue on a number of fronts. While we must ensure that we have tough penalties for violations of the law, we must also find ways to prevent these activities and to educate drivers about the risks involved with texting and talking while behind the wheel.”
“Even with the number of deaths and injuries that have occurred as a result of distracted driving, we still see people on our roadways texting and talking while driving. This has to stop,” said Senator Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester). “The distracted driving task force will study this very serious problem, but also look at a host of other distractions that are creating dangerous driving conditions in our state.”
More than 15 lives are lost each day in the United States in crashes that involve distracted driving and another 1,200 people are injured, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a survey conducted by the CDC, 1 in 4 drivers reported talking on their cell phone “regularly” or “fairly often” while driving. Nine percent of drivers reported that they “regularly” or “fairly often” text or e-mail while driving. For younger drivers, the statistics are even more troubling. More than half of drivers ages 18-29 reported texting or e-mailing while driving at least once in the previous 30 days, and more than 25 percent reported texting or e-mailing “regularly” or “fairly often” while driving, according to the CDC.
The legislation (S-2547) would create the “Task Force on Driver Distractions” within the Department of Transportation to study and develop recommendations concerning the issue of driver distractions and highway safety including, but not limited to, recent communications technology and non-technological activities. The task force’s work would include recommendations for the development of a public information campaign to increase the public’s awareness of the risks associated with driving distractions and to educate and inform motorists of methods to eliminate or minimize these risks. The task force would also develop recommendations for improving highway and traffic safety by reducing motor vehicle accidents related to the use of communications technology in conjunction with the operation of a motor vehicle.
“The increased use of smart phones and tablets in today’s multi-tasking society has created increased distractions for drivers, compromising the safety of those using our roads and highways,” said Senator Madden. “We have to take additional steps to reach drivers and to educate them about the very real dangers of distracted driving and the consequences of engaging in activities such as texting, talking and emailing while driving. This task force will take a hard look at what has become a pervasive problem in this state, and elsewhere, and make recommendations to address it.”
“Texting, talking or handling a GPS while driving is extremely dangerous but unfortunately seems to be becoming more and more prevalent on our roadways,” said Senator Norcross. “Apparently, the threat of facing the current penalties in place for breaking the hands-free law is not enough to make some drivers put down their cell phones or other electronic devices. It’s time that we looked at a variety of ways of approaching the problem of distracted driving. The task force will do just that.”
The task force would consist of the following eleven members: the Commissioners of Transportation and Education, the Chief Administrator of the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, and the Director of the Office of Highway Traffic Safety in the Department of Law and Public Safety would serve ex-officio. Members of the County Prosecutor’s Association of New Jersey and New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association also would be appointed to the task force. In addition, five public members with education or experience in highway traffic safety would be included in the membership, with three of these members to be appointed by the Governor, one by the President of the Senate, and one by the Speaker of the General Assembly.
The panel would organize within 120 days after the appointment of a majority of its members and be required to submit an interim report after six months, and a final report containing its findings and recommendations no later than one year after its organization. It would expire 30 days after the issuance of the final report.
A leading advocate in the Legislature for combating the problem of texting and talking while driving, Madden was the sponsor of the Kulesh, Kuberts’ and Bolis’ Act which was signed into law in July 2012 and gives prosecutors a tool to obtain convictions for vehicular homicide or assault by auto against a person who was involved in serious motor vehicle accidents while they are talking or texting on their cell phone. He is also the sponsor of legislation to increase penalties for texting while driving and dedicate a portion of the fines to a fund that will be used to provide grants to fund education and awareness programs.
The committee approved the bill by a vote of 5-0. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote.