Setting the Record Straight on the Distracted-Driving Bill

New Jersey Law Journal

September 12, 2016 

Distracted driving—from tooth flossing to texting to changing clothes while behind the wheel—played a role in 190 fatal accidents and many more injuries in New Jersey in 2014. It was the top cause of fatal collisions that year, according to State Police.

Given such statistics, work to tackle the problem of distracted driving offers New Jersey our greatest opportunity to reduce deaths and injuries from auto accidents. To that end, Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson, and I have sponsored A-1908, which would make distracted driving illegal.

Contrary to what has become a common misinterpretation, the bill would not ban coffee-drinking behind the wheel. It's unlikely a police officer would ticket a driver who is consuming coffee, as the bill mentions nothing about food or drink, let alone coffee.

What the bill would do is focus on changing the behavior of drivers. Many drivers think an activity that will take just a few seconds won't make a difference. But the five seconds a driver's eyes are off the road at 55 mph constitute the same period of time it takes to cover the length of a football field. A driver might as well be blindfolded.

I've seen the need for this bill firsthand. Many times, I've witnessed drivers engaging in a litany of perilous moves—from watching a movie on an iPad to reading a newspaper.

Activities such as talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device or texting behind the wheel already are prohibited by New Jersey law. But no single statute addresses distracted driving. It makes sense to create an umbrella law to focus on the issue. The existence of a catch-all law would avoid the problem of having to update legislation each time new technology debuts.

The reasons for the bill are evident in the numbers.

In 2015, in a Harris Poll commissioned by Erie Insurance Group, drivers admitted to engaging in the following behaviors behind the wheel: romantic encounter, 15 percent; combing/styling hair, 15 percent; changing clothes, 9 percent; putting on makeup, 8 percent; brushing/flossing teeth, 4 percent; taking selfies, 4 percent; changing drivers, 3 percent; or going to the bathroom, 3 percent. Other drivers admitted to scratching off lottery tickets, playing guitar, putting in contact lenses or eye drops, or curling eyelashes.

We are an on-the-go society and pride ourselves on multitasking. But that lifestyle can lead to inattentive driving, fatalities and injuries.

The problem exists across the country; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says distracted driving caused 3,179 deaths and 431,000 injuries in 2014.

Our bill, modeled after one in Maine, is intended to educate drivers so they will think twice about distracted driving. The bill authorizes police to issue a summons to drivers engaged in "any activity unrelated to the actual operation of a motor vehicle in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle."

Violations will mean a $200-$400 fine for the first offense, $400-$600 for the second and $600-$800 for the third or subsequent offense. The third or subsequent violation also may result in a driver's license suspension of up to 90 days and motor vehicle points. The law enforcement officer issuing the summons will include the specific nature of the distracted driving, which will help us build a database of activities on which we should focus driver education.

Twenty-five percent of the fines collected will be paid to the county—and 25 percent to the municipality—in which the violation occurred. The remainder will go to the state treasurer to fund a public education program about the dangers of texting while driving and related topics.

The bill also strengthens the law prohibiting cell phone use while driving by establishing a presumptive inference that a person holding a cell phone near the ear broke the law.

It's obvious: the more we do other things while driving, the less attention we're paying to the road and other vehicles.

The point is that we can make a difference, and this is a good place to start.

Read the opinion here.

Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, is the New Jersey Assembly's Deputy Speaker, Chair of the Assembly's Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, a lawyer and founder of Wisniewski & Associates, in Sayreville.

Reprinted with permission from the Sept. 12, 2016 issue of the New Jersey Law Journal. © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved. 

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