New Jersey, other states target unsafe motorists

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | Tuesday, March 26, 2013

An effort in New Jersey to put in place a “three strikes” policy when dealing with distracted drivers is nearing passage at the statehouse. Other states are also looking to boost punishments.

New Jersey law already allows police to pull over drivers for typing, reading or sending text messages while at the wheel. It also allows primary enforcement of the state’s ban on using any cellphone that is not a hands-free device.

In place since 2004, the law was changed to allow for primary enforcement in 2008. Violators face $100 fines.

The Assembly voted 72-2 to approve a bill that would stiffen penalties for drivers who get caught talking on a handheld device or texting while driving. S69 now heads back to the Senate for further consideration before it can move to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.

“We need to send a louder message that cellphone use while driving is a serious, and often deadly, hazard,” Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, said in a news release.

First-time offenders would face fines between $200 and $400 – up from $100. Repeat offenses could result in $600 fines, while subsequent offenses could cost as much as $800.

Third-time offenders would also face the loss of driving privileges for 90 days. In addition, three points would be added to licenses.

State lawmakers elsewhere are also looking to boost enforcement and punishment of existing rules on distracted driving.

In Virginia, talking on a handheld device already is prohibited while driving. However, law enforcement can only cite offenders after pulling them over for something else – like speeding.

House and Senate lawmakers sent a bill to Gov. Bob McDonnell that would bump up enforcement to a primary offense, meaning drivers could be cited solely for violating the rule.

Also, HB1907 would increase punishment for first-time offenders from $20 to $250. Subsequent violations could result in $500 fines. Anyone convicted of reckless driving while texting would also face a mandatory minimum $500 fine.

Across the state line in Maryland, House lawmakers advanced a nearly identical bill to the Senate. Punishment for offenders would increase from $40 to as much as $500. In addition, HB753 would include the possibility of points against the driver’s license.

On the opposite coast, Oregon lawmakers are reviewing a bill, HB9, to increase fines for texting while driving to as much as $1,000 – up from $250.

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