TRENTON – If it seems as if people spend more time behind the wheel doing tasks other than driving – working, texting, – then it should come as little surprise that more laws are being passed to address such things.
The Legislature passed a revised version of the graduated driver’s licenses (GDLs) legislation after it was released by the respective Transportation Committees late last year. The revisions were fueled by an unusually high number of accidents by young teen drivers, and the bills passed last week as the session drew to a close.
On a related matter, since its enactment in 2009, some parents have complained about the so-called “Kyleigh’s Law,” which would require young drivers to put a decal on their vehicle’s license plate, essentially telling the world there is a young motorist in the car. The law was named after a 16-year-old high school student who was killed in 2006 while riding in a car driven by a teen with a probationary license.
Then, there is the “Move Over” law, which would make it a ticket-able offense if a motorist fails to pull out of the way of an oncoming vehicle with flashing lights, such as a tow truck or a highway maintenance vehicle. The legislation passed the Assembly by a vote of 51-16.
On the federal level, the National Transportation Safety Board has urged all states to adopt wholesale bans on the practice of text messaging and even hands-free cell phone devices in cars, after a series of horrendous accidents.
All of these adopted or proposed laws are a reflection of the evolving nature – for better or worse – of how drivers act behind the wheel.
Experts say that at the root of drivers’ behavior is the decision of motorists who want to make the most out of an otherwise mundane, daily task and who sometimes don’t pay as much attention as they should to what is going on around them.
Pam Fischer, who served as the state’s highway safety director for Gov. Jon Corzine, and who now heads the New Jersey Safe Teen Driving Coalition, said during her time there was a flurry of activity with more emphasis on not only making driving safer, but also improving conditions for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Much of that push continues, and she believes it has a lot to do with changing attitudes.
“We live in suburbia. We don’t walk like we used to,” she said. “We spend so much time in our cars. People look at it as a waste of time, looking for other things to do (while driving from one place to another). We’re not paying as much attention to the act of driving. We’re not as courteous. There’s been a cultural shift.”
The Texas Transportation Institute listed several corridors in New Jersey that it called “reliably unreliable” given their high rates of congestion. The roadways listed in the TTI’s 2011 Congested Corridors Report included Interstate 80, Route 22, the Garden State Parkway, and Interstate 95, among others.
Fischer pointed out there are countless ways to become distracted, leading to poor driving habits where safety and obedience take a proverbial back seat.
“There is so much technology at our disposal,” she said.
She said one of the priorities laid out in 2007, when a task force was created, was to improve teen driving safety.
Car crashes are still the top cause of deaths among teens, she said. As a result, the laws concerning graduated drivers licenses were revised over time, and were recently tweaked, in the form of a bill sponsored by Assemblyman John Wisniewski, (D-19), of Sayreville.
The bill, A3309, as well as its companion bill in the Senate (S3058), would require supervised teen driving to last for one year instead of six months, and would require parents and teens to take an orientation class that will help them gain a better understanding.
AAA Clubs of New Jersey supported the changes sought in the recently passed legislation.
“Time and time again, AAA studies have found that parents are looking for tools to make them better teachers during this phase of their teen’s lives,” said Cathleen Lewis, a spokesperson with AAA New Jersey Automobile Club. “A3309/S3058 provides these resources to them, through an orientation to answer any questions parents may have.”
Initially, AAA expressed concern about providing an online option, preferring that the teen and the parent physically attend the orientation. However, Lewis said providing the information in some way, shape or form is better than not having anything.
Still, Lewis said AAA “strongly encourages” the parents and teens to show up at an orientation.
Fischer said it is in the teen demographic where changes in driving habits are particularly revealing. Unlike past generations, teens are a lot more mobile, many having their own personal vehicles.
“Most of them didn’t have their own car or have ready access to the family car,” Fischer said.
“The attitude about driving has changed.” Instead of it being as a means to get to and from destinations, Fischer said that the attitude now is about “how we can make better use of our times.
“It’s become an extension of your home or office.”
That observation certainly has backing, as a recent Associated Press article showed how people use their cell phones while driving to conduct business.
For all their imperfections, the graduated driver’s license laws are working, Fischer said. Since Jan. 1, 2001, there has been a whopping 56 percent reduction in teen driving fatalities.
One bill, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Beck, (R-12), of Red Bank, called for suspending Kyleigh’s Law because parents feared the decals would be detected by sexual predators who may then follow the teens. The bill calls for technology to take the place of the decals.
“Serious concerns have been raised by the parents and guardians of these licensees,” the bill states. “In particular, there is fear that not just law enforcement officers can identify their children, but also other members of the general public, including sexual predators.”
Fischer said such fears are based wholly on emotion, adding that some parents already treat their cars as moving billboards touting the achievements of their children.
“We’re advertising on our cars as we are,” she said. “Predators don’t look for little stickers, they look for people.”
The state Attorney General office last spring stated in a report there was one incident where a driver, a 17-year-old girl, was “targeted” because of the decal.
Move Over Law
While the Move Over Law passed the Assembly comfortably, there were two lawmakers who expressed some skepticism about whether spending money on signs instructing drivers to clear the way for emergency and other vehicles would be all that effective.
The bill was released from committee, but two committee members, – Assemblyman Scott Rudder, (R-8), of Medford, and Assemblyman Scott Rumana, (R-40), of Wayne, abstained, largely because of the potential, unidentified costs and possible ineffectiveness.
Rudder had mentioned the unidentified costs as one of the reasons for his vote in a recent committee hearing. But he added, “I’m not sure putting a sign up will change the behavior.”
Rumana also said another way needs to be explored to address this issue.
More such laws
Driver’s laws are in a state of development as technology and personal habits change.
As the new legislative session gets under way, there already have been some more bills introduced, essentially reintroductions of bills unacted upon in earlier sessions.
S69, sponsored by Sen. Richard Codey, (D-27), would increase fines for hand-held cell phone use or texting from $100 for a first offense to $200 for a first offense, $400 for a second offense, and $600 for a third offense or more.
Originally introduced in July 2010, this proposal has undergone amendments and passed the Senate, but the lower-chamber version A3154 has been stuck in Assembly committee.