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Cell Phones and the Evolution of the Laws


Operating a Motor Vehicle while Using a Cell Phone, NJSA 39:4:97.3

You’re heading to meet up with a friend and you’re running late – you’d better send a quick text, right?  What about that conference call you need to be on as you drive into the office?  It’s a fact – at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving.  This number has held steady since 2010.

Many states consider using your cell phone while driving a distracted driving offense.  What exactly constitutes distracted driving?  It is any activity that could divert a person’s attention away from the primary task of driving. All distractions endanger the driver’s safety, as well as the safety of others in the car and any bystanders.  Because texting requires visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel) and cognitive (taking your mind off of driving) attention from the driver, it is by far the most alarming distraction.  It seems as though many drivers out there have forgotten that driving is a privilege earned by proving that you’re a responsible citizen who’ll exercise intelligent judgment while on the road.

Scary Statistics

23% of all crashes each year involve cell phone use, resulting in 1.3 million crashes nationally. Distractions, along with alcohol and speeding, are now leading factors in fatal and serious injury crashes.

10% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash, while drivers in their 20’s make up 27% of the distracted drivers in fatal accidents.

25% of teens have admitted to responding to a text message once or more every time they drive. 20% of teens and 10% of parents admit that they have had multi-message text conversations while driving.

A mind blowing fact: Approximately 171.3 billion text messages were sent in the U.S every month in 2012, and this number is expected to increase steadily.

Multitasking while Driving 

Most people fail to realize the brain isn’t built to handle more than one task at a time.  It’s been proven that, because the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, people take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error.  This isn’t a big deal when it comes to checking your email and finishing up a phone call while at work, but texting and/or talking on your cell phone have you taking your eyes off the road and, at best, leave you steering with only one hand.  Talking on a cell phone while driving makes you four times as likely to crash, and texting while driving increases your chances of a crash by 8 to 23 times. While a growing number of drivers are turning to hands-free devices, studies show hands-free devices provide no safety benefit. It’s the conversation, not the device that creates the danger.

New Jersey and the Evolution of Cell Phone Laws

New Jersey was one of the first sates to ban hand-held cell phone use and text messaging while driving.  New Jersey was a leader in prohibiting cell phone use by drivers with permits!

Between 2006 and 2008, approximately 5,500 handheld cell phone-related accidents were reported in the state of New Jersey.  In 2007, New Jersey’s existing cell phone driving law was updated to a primary offense, meaning police can stop suspected violators solely for that reason. Then, in March 2008, the texting rules went into effect.  Prior to the update, a ticket could be issued for use of a cell phone if you were pulled over for another reason such as speeding or illegal lane change.  These new laws immediately brought about safer driving – the New Jersey Division of Highway Safety estimates 3,600 accidents were linked to handheld cell phone use between 2008 and 2010, a drop of about 35%!

In 2008, AAA Clubs of New Jersey reported that almost all state drivers believed other motorist are distracted by cell phones, but only 52% admitted to talking and driving themselves! 37% of drivers between the ages of 18 and 29 said they used text messaging devices or cell phones behind the wheel.

In 2010, Senator Richard Cody sponsored Senate bill S2181, which toughened penalties for cell phone use.  “It is time to take serious action against those who would put themselves and the public at risk,” he said.  He went on to state, “Texting while driving is a lethal, dangerous activity that goes about essentially unpunished.” Sadly, in 2010 approximately 3,100 people in this country died in crashes that involved a distracted driver, and 416,000 people were injured.  At this point in time, NJ law enforcement agencies were writing about 10,000 tickets a month for driving and using handheld cell phones, or for driving and text messaging.

Also in 2010, Bill A407, which restricts public transit drivers from text messaging, was unanimously approved. Fines went up to $1,000, imprisonment for 6 months or both. “A text message can wait. Public transportation safety cannot.”

In May 2011, Bill A2816 was passed.  It provided for charge of vehicular homicide or assault by vehicle if death occurred due to a driver’s cell phone use. Driving while using a cell phone would be assumed reckless driving. This is also known as Kulesh and Kurbert’s Law. Penalties include prison time and fines up to $150,000, similar to drunken driver punishments.

During the 2012-2013 session, Senator Cody sought to make it clear that use of handheld cell phones at red lights is illegal.  The bill filed brought NJ into compliance with requirements for a federal distracted driving grant. Cody’s bill also sought to place questions about distracting driving on the driver’s license test.

July 1, 2014 – New Jersey Cracks Down

New Jersey already has one of the nation’s strongest set of laws concerning texting and use of cell phones while driving; however, new laws will go into effect as of this summer under what’s billed as the toughest hands-free cell phone law in the nation.  State Senator Cody’s Bill S69 was approved by the Governor Christie in June 27th 2013.

“Third and subsequent fines are where we’re really going to get serious,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, who was active in the bill’s passage.

What these new laws mean for drivers:

  • Fines for first-offense electronic distracted driving (texting or talking on a cell phone while driving) will jump to $200 to $400, and the offense will be valid for 10 years;
  • Fines for a second offense will be $400 to $600, and the offense will also be valid for 10 years;
  • Penalties for third and subsequent offense will include a fine of up to $800, three points on you license and a possible 90-day suspension of license.

Prohibitions/Restrictions:

  • Drivers must use hands-free devices while talking on cell phones;
  • Text messaging and use of video games are prohibited while driving;
  • School bus operators are prohibited from any cell phone use while driving;
  • Drivers under the age of 21 with learners’ permits or probationary licenses are prohibited from using cell phones, texting devices and/or other hand-held or hands-free wireless electronic devices while driving.

Bill S3057: Bars motorists from using handheld cell phones to talk or text while stopped temporarily, as in at stoplights.

Bill S2783: Will allow police to search a driver’s cell phone in cases of injury, death or property damage. Officer needs “reasonable grounds” and must return device to the driver. Also increases fine for text messaging while driving to $300 and 2 points against the offender’s license. Drivers convicted of causing an accident while texting subject to 3-month license suspension.

Bill A1619: For holders of commercial driver’s licenses, fines increase to $250 for texting or using handheld cell phone.

Bill A2229:  Bars driving instructors from using handheld wireless devices while teaching.

So, is texting or talking on your phone while driving really worth the consequences?  As the author of this article, I must admit that even though we have laws in place, using a cell phone behind the wheel has become almost second nature. At a stop light?  Let me check to see if anything has happened since I was stuck at that last light.  My phone lit up?  I’d better see what’s going on.  My boss or family is calling?  It must be important; I’d better take the call.

Now, though, my thoughts on using my phone while behind the wheel have changed drastically.  As I hope many people will start doing, my phone is now put away in a place that is not accessible while driving. Training ourselves to do what we should have been all along is not going to be easy, but it will be beneficial when July 1st rolls around, and the police can ticket you for almost everything cell related.

If you do find yourself with a ticket that is phone related while driving, we recommend contacting a lawyer.  Allowing a cell phone offense to follow you for 10 years will have a huge impact should you be pulled over for any other cell phone related traffic matters.  We are here to help.  Please reach out to us at The Law Offices of James A. Abate, LLC at (908) 210-9755. We are here to help!

Get your questions answered – call me for your free, 20 min phone consultation (908) 210-9755

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