Amended distracted-driving bill returns to Senate

TRENTON – Whether it’s meant as a money-maker to beef up local and state revenues or to improve driving safety, New Jersey is far from alone in initiating legislation to increase fines for talking or texting on cell phones while driving.

A1080/S69 would increase fines to $200 for a first-time offense, $400 for a second offense, and $600 for subsequent offenses. The current fine is $100, regardless of how many times a motorist commits the penalty.

The bill easily passed the Assembly last Thursday by a 73-2-1 vote, but now goes back to the Senate for a vote because it was amended. That amendment would enable 50 percent of the fines from the tickets to be kept by the municipalities where the offense occurred, and the other half to go to the state Treasury Department.

Once the Senate votes on the bill, which is expected to pass, it will go to Gov. Chris Christie for consideration.

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, (R-13), Little Silver, who was one of two lawmakers to vote no on the bill last week, said that while he doesn’t condone the practice of using mobile devices while driving, he believes increasing the fines is excessive.

“At some point, you get a law of diminishing returns,” he said. “Why stop here, if more is good.”

He said while he understands the lawmakers’ goal of cutting down the behavior of distracted driving, “our better bet is continued education on the dangers of distracted driving as well as reasonable, rational and consistent laws.”

However, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, (D-20), of Elizabeth, has said the increased fine is needed because the current fine of $100 isn’t a big enough deterrent. Some studies have shown texting while driving makes it 23 times more likely to cause an accident.

According to state data Quijano cited, some 3,200 motor vehicle accidents took place last year that  stemmed from talking or texting on a mobile device.  

“Behavior hasn’t changed,” she said. “No call is so important that you need to injure or kill someone.”

The impetus to improve motorists’ behavior by avoiding cell phone use is a common reason other state legislatures have cited for hiking fines.

California, Oregon and Rhode Island are among the states that have recently introduced legislation that, in many cases, would substantially increase penalties.

In Oregon, bills have been introduced to increase first-time offenses from $110 to $260 and to quadruple second-offenses from $250 to $1,000.  

In Virginia, lawmakers wanted to upgrade the texting while driving penalty form a secondary offense (fined only if another offense took place) to a primary offense. And, the fine for a first-time penalty would go up from $20 to $250 and $50 to $500 for second-time offenses.

In California, bills that would impose a modest fine hike from $20 to $30 for first-time offenses, and from $50 to $60 a second time, was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The reasons had largely to do with the much higher fines offenders already have to pay in court along with administrative fees.

“My point here is that the current fines are not trivial but do, in fact, get drivers’ attention,” Brown said. “Upping the fines may satisfy the punitive instincts of some, but I severely doubt that it will further reduce violations.”

Data showing that increasing fines actually lowers the number of motor vehicle accidents is hard to find as it’s not an exact science. But driving safety advocates believe placing more stringent penalties could drive more people to become more conscientious and think twice about picking up that mobile device when driving.

“We are supportive of any measure to increase penalties to discourage distracted driving,” said Tracy Noble, a spokesperson with the AAA Mid-Atlantic Region. “There are crashes regularly due to distracted driving.”

While the automobile group hasn’t conducted any research finding an indirect relationship between the amount of fines and number of accidents, Noble said the group has done polling that found that many drivers violate the laws even while telling others to obey them.

She described it as a “do-as-I-say, not do-as-I-do” attitude.

“What we need is a cultural change and it needs to start early on,” she said, suggesting parents should set an example for their children by avoiding mobile device usage behind the wheel.

While many states are trying to issue higher fines to discourage the behavior, one state wants to literally keep tabs based on recent legislation.

In Rhode Island, lawmakers are considering having drivers who are found guilty of the texting while driving law to have a device installed in their cars to prevent them from calling or texting on future occasions.

Those found to not have the device installed after being ordered to could face license suspensions, according to the bill. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging it.

New Jersey has seen a decrease in the number of tickets issued for using cell phones while driving, although that doesn’t necessarily mean the actual usage behind the wheel has gone down. The lowered numbers could be due to several factors, such as less enforcement.

Amended distracted-driving bill returns to Senate