New Jersey Senate panel OKs stricter ban on cell phones

| 2/17/2006

New Jersey, one of three states with a statewide ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving, is considering making their rule a little tougher – and boosting revenue by millions.

The Senate Law and Public Safety and Veterans’ Affairs Committee unanimously endorsed a measure Feb. 6 to permit police to pull over drivers solely for violating the ban. Currently, drivers can only be cited for using a hand-held phone when they are stopped for another offense, such as speeding.

“Cell phones have become a sign of the times in today’s fast-paced world, …” Senate President Richard Codey, D-West Orange, said in a written statement. “But there’s a time and a place for everything. Drivers already have enough distractions. When you’re driving down the (New Jersey) Turnpike at 65 mph, adding a cell phone to the mix is not only inappropriate, it’s downright dangerous.”

The bill’s next stop is the full Senate. If approved, the measure – S1099 – would head to the state’s House for further consideration.

Existing New Jersey law fines drivers between $100 and $250 for using their cell phones while driving. The rule limits drivers to the use of “hands-free” devices, but still allows drivers to dial, answer and turn on their cell phones.

Currently, New York and Connecticut make driving while holding a phone a primary offense.

As a secondary offense, New Jersey’s law led to 11,400 citations being issued during the first 12 months the current ban was enforced.

In comparison, New York’s law resulted in 100,250 violations in the first 15 months of enforcement.

Sen. Joseph Palaia, R-Monmouth, a sponsor of the New Jersey bill, said making using a hand-held cell phone a primary offense could generate $10 million to $25 million a year in fines. Fines generally are split between the state and local governments.

The push to strengthen New Jersey’s cell phone restriction comes as studies have shown that hands-free and hand-held phones are equally distracting.

AAA New Jersey applauds the Legislature’s efforts to improve driver safety, but Pam Fischer, a spokeswoman for the association, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the bill doesn’t bar many other driver distractions.

With that in mind, a bill in the Assembly Transportation would outlaw various driving distractions.

In addition to permitting police to pull over drivers solely for violating the hand-held cell phone rule, it would prohibit drivers in the state from engaging in any activity not related to the operation of the vehicle “in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle.”

Those distractions are not listed in the bill – A1966 – but are presumed to include actions such as eating, smoking, reading or applying cosmetics.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said while no list was included in the bill, it would give police flexibility in determining distractions.

Wisniewski’s bill would make any distracted driving activity, including cell phone use, punishable by a $100 fine.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor